Fees Must Fall’s ideology is dubious, its tactics counterproductive, and its trajectory dangerous

To say that protests have roiled many campuses across South Africa in recent weeks is to indulge in an almost absurd form of understatement. They are part of years-long dissatisfaction with ever increasing tuition fees at universities, this latest eruption stoked by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande’s announcement on 19th September that fees for those with a family income less than R600 000 would not increase, effectively staying at 2015 levels, while universities could raise fees by no more than 8%. This was effectively a cowardly cop-out meant to place the onus on universities and deflect attention away from the government, which was compelled last year to scrap fee increases in the face of similar protests.

The record so far during this latest upsurge includes a law library and residence for disabled students set ablaze at UKZN, bricks launched at riot police at Wits University, human waste being strewn around and buildings set on fire at CPUT, breasts bared in protest at Wits, and even alleged threats to kidnap zebras at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. At just about every affected institution, protesting students have endeavoured to shut down normal operations by entering lecture halls and ordering everyone out, often using fire extinguishers to accomplish this goal. In one tragic incident, a 39-year-old janitor at Wits died after inhaling fumes released from just such an implement designed to be used only in emergencies. If only these could have been used to set out the numerous fires that have accompanied so many protests. The atmosphere which has been cultivated on campuses country-wide has been shot through with a pervasive sense of intimidation and coercion, many students too afraid to speak out or resist the uncompromising actions of a small minority. To give some sense of what I am referring to, consider the response to a silent peaceful protest organised by Wits students who wanted classes to resume. Calling themselves “Take Wits Back,” they were surrounded by other students, harassed, and had signs ripped out of their hands. In other words, those who claim the right to protest peacefully are not willing to extend that same right to those who disagree with their tactics. That last word is a key one requiring significant discussion, with few readymade or absolute answers. Very few decent and honest people can fail to acknowledge that even after 22 years since its first democratic election, South Africa remains riven by deep racial and class inequalities on virtually every socioeconomic level. The desire to implement free higher education, or a mixed scheme as proposed by UCT Vice Chancellor Max Price to have poor students attend for free while wealthier ones subsidise them, is therefore an undeniably noble ambition.

As it stands, the strategy of the Fees Must Fall movement to attain the ultimate goal of free higher education is to shut down operations at major tertiary institutions. In this they have been all too successful, with Wits, UCT, and Rhodes University, among major campuses, all but completely closed since Nzimande’s announcement, despite attempts here and there to continue the academic year, predictably met each time with increased protests and capitulation by university administrators. If the goal is to achieve free higher education, meaning of course that government pays for this through taxpayer money, then all mass action must surely be directed at the state. After all, the singular achievement of this movement came last year when students across the economic, racial, and political spectrum banded together to march on Parliament to demand that fee increases for 2016 be scrapped. In an iconic moment to cap off that glorious moment of people power, President Jacob Zuma was forced to flee through a back exit and scurry away in his motorcade that, to conceal the identity of the personage being escorted, did not flash its customary blue lights.

For some reason, despite a past successful precedent, this year the protests have remained almost exclusively focussed on disrupting the regular functioning of universities in the hopes that this will somehow magically achieve “free” higher education, even though Nzimande has made it clear this simply will not happen at this stage. The government is currently conducting a commission of inquiry to determine the feasibility of “free” higher education that will release its report in May 2017. I doubt protesters do not know this, but no amount of camping outside of Max Price’s office, or that of Adam Habib, or continuing to interfere with other students’ right to an education, will bring about the lofty and important goal of “free” higher education. There is clearly a lot more going on here, which brings us to the ideology that largely animates the Fees Must Fall movement.

Last year, Michael Cardo wrote an insightful piece at Politics Web about what he described as the sinister underbelly of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, the precursor to the current protests with many of the same people involved. This was the first shot across the bow, or perhaps more appropriately the initial excrement flung at the statue, in this case that of Cecil John Rhodes which was eventually removed from UCT. The chief figure behind the infamous “poo protest” was Chumani Maxwele, who told Chris Barron of the Sunday Times that, “I don’t have to justify anything to a white male or a white institution. Nothing whatsoever.” This fixation on seeing the University of Cape Town, the first university during Apartheid to admit black students, as a bastion of white privilege and racial exclusion has become a mainstay of those at the vanguard of the Fees Must Fall movement, itself an outgrowth not only of Rhodes Must Fall but also the so-called Shackville protests that exploded at UCT in February this year. During a single night, protesting students burned priceless artwork at Smuts Hall, including of a black artist who supported #RhodesMustFall, torched a Jammie Shuttle bus, and fire bombed Max Price’s office. In addition, the words “F____ white people” were spray-painted on the World War I memorial near the Jameson steps, a wonderfully inclusive sentiment that has appeared in numerous campuses countrywide. Days earlier a shack, hence the name “Shackville,” had been erected in protest at the lack of accommodation for poor black students. That this is a problem all students everywhere in the world face, not to mention that 75% of those accommodated by UCT in various residences were poor and black, seemed to escape the notice of those who inferred that racism lay behind the allocation of space. In a lengthy manifesto/screed/rant sent to all students and staff, the Shackville protesters did not apologise for a single act of vandalism or arson, expressing regret only for the unintended destruction of Richard Baholo’s art. Subsequently, five students were interdicted and forbidden from being on campus.

Dissatisfaction over this fact, that is to say students who committed crimes being forced to answer for their actions, and calls for “decolonised” education, form the core grievances that continue to inspire protesters at UCT, with similar demands, particularly the often ill-defined “decolonial” project, being a mainstay on campuses up and down the land. The fevered racialist sentiments that so exercised Maxwele, and seem so much a part of the ideological makeup of the present incarnation of Fees Must Fall, finds a disturbing echo in the figure of newly appointed professor in the UCT Politics Department, Dr Lwazi Lushaba, as he insists people refer to him lest they want to be accused of racist disrespect. Lushaba was expelled from Wits in 2015 for participating in a violent protest, though he was reinstated, and was again recently the subject of a controversy after publishing an open letter to Anthony Butler, head of the department. Butler had received complaints following a lecture in which Lushaba brought Rhodes Must Fall activists, including one who had been interdicted and thus barred from campus, into class and had them sing protest ditties in front of students. Considering the kind of hateful rhetoric this group has openly directed against white people, not to mention the violent tactics noted above, it is hardly surprising that some students would have felt distinctly uncomfortable at this shall we say innovative pedagogical approach. Lushaba thought it wise to take his dissatisfaction with the department in general, and what he perceived as a slight from Butler in particular, into the public domain with a lengthy screed that is as narcissistically grandiose as it is pettily think-skinned, not to mention outrageously mendacious in its claims about no black students being enrolled in the Politics Masters programme at UCT. The events on campus this past week have given Lushaba a ripe opening for promoting a perspective that is widely shared among the core group of committed protesters one sees marching across campus, bellowing into megaphones, causing public disorder, threatening fellow students, and disrupting classes. When protesting students filled the first floor of the Leslie Social Science building, Lushaba addressed the crowd and said that while whites should be tolerated, they must know that “this institution belongs to us,” presumably meaning black people. Here I thought we were trying to build an inclusive, multiracial South Africa, one that, as the ANC’s 1954 Freedom Charter declared, “belongs to all who live in it.” Whatever happened to fighting white domination and black domination, as Nelson Mandela vowed was his mission at the Rivonia Trial? Should we take decolonial education to mean a type exclusively taught by black people exclusively for black people? This and many other questions, some practical and some intellectual, abound in trying to get a precise handle on a term that is glibly bandied about but rarely lucidly laid out.

Gaining a better understanding of the ideology in question helps one to understand why these protests have so often taken a destructive, counterproductive, and intolerant form. They are, if you will, often dialectically of a piece. As Cardo pointed out in that piece from last year, Rhodes Must Fall is “an illiberal movement, supported by progressive patsies, whose ringleaders and cheerleaders both inside and outside the academy despise liberals,” its major driving force an “amalgam of racial nationalists, leftists, self-styled social justice activists, and politically correct ideologues who view the world (and the humanities in particular) through the narrow prism of critical race theory, “whiteness studies” and “white privilege.” Cardo claims that these types reduce the “whole history of humankind” to a simplistic colonial binary between “black” and “white,” “us” and “them,” a perspective that “inevitably gives rise to a form of identity politics based on racial mobilization.” This obsession with race, whether referring to UCT as a purely “white institution” or regularly organising meetings where “Disrupting Whiteness” is the theme, and indeed displaying an almost monomaniacal preoccupation with identity labels more generally, is characteristic of a way of seeing the world that essentialises what are absolute and inescapable characteristics. In this analytical schema, one’s gender or ethnicity or sexual orientation, sometimes altogether, are elevated to the most overridingly important category, if not the only one worthy of consideration. As an attendant result, those who were previously disadvantaged have their voices elevated by virtue of this fact alone, while those, such as white heterosexual males, perceived as representatives of patriarchal and racial dominance, have their opinions concomitantly downgraded, if not discarded altogether. To say that this will not tend to cultivate an environment conducive to honest, respectful, and thoroughgoing intellectual discourse is putting it rather mildly.

What is almost amusing, amidst how infuriating it is to engage with people who will dismiss one’s arguments based on arbitrary contingent factors such as race or gender, is that the selfsame individuals calling for South African universities to be “decolonised” are themselves casually employing a welter of concepts borrowed virtually wholesale from US colleges. Terms such as “cisgendered”, “trigger warnings,” and, a personal favourite, “safe spaces” have descended upon American redoubts of higher learning these past few decades like a swarm of mind-devouring locusts for the express purpose of achieving purity in language and thought to assuage any hint of un-pc impropriety, and have unfortunately colonised (there really is no better word) vast swathes of university departments worldwide. The irony inherent in this appropriation is somewhat delicious, though it will be entirely lost on the current cohort of pseudo-radicals. To them, the structural violence (another regularly adduced word combination) directed against black bodies necessitates a violent response. Ergo, such acts as arson, vandalism, surrounding the UCT vice-chancellor to prevent him leaving a venue, intimidating other students engaged in peaceful protest, disrupting lectures, and, as happened at Wits, the death of a janitor, someone far more disadvantaged than the student protesters it must be added, are all fair game in combatting and potentially overthrowing an unjust status quo. If it is undeniable that far too many black people in South Africa continue to tragically languish in dire poverty, and as a result remain excluded from higher education, among a host of historically rooted injustices, it is far less clear that destroying university property and intimidating other students, or bringing classes to a halt, is the ideal way to uplift the impoverished and marginalised. Considering that thousands of doctors and teachers might not be able to graduate this year, along with tens of thousands of other students whose ability to enter the job market will be seriously compromised, the insistence on “free” and decolonised higher education, along with pardoning students implicated in criminal activity, places the effective functioning of the entire country in serious jeopardy. This stance is both confusing and selfish, but somewhat expected given that the underlying ideology gives short shrift to such liberal pieties as individual rights and equality before the law.

One of the few academics who has openly condemned the chaos engendered by Fees Must Fall is UCT philosophy professor, David Benatar. In his piece, ‘UCT: Capitulation isn’t working,’ he proffered a brilliantly cogent defence of the premise underpinning the liberal democratic social contract. Benatar points out that for such an order to function, the state must necessarily retain the monopoly on the legitimate use of force, while individual rights can only be protected if all people in the polity accede to the rule of law, even those statutes they do not necessarily agree with. Despite Benatar’s specific reference to a democratic social order, implying both that it was forged through democratic participation and can be altered through a deliberative process, his article was met with accusations by some Fees Must Fall protesters that he is delegitimising protests against the state, and even this at his was the sort of defence that defenders of Apartheid might employ. The absurdity of such charges hardly merit a response, displaying as they do a contemptible wilful ignorance, at best, about the source of liberal political philosophy and the importance that this strain of thought retains in South Africa’s Constitution, one of the world’s best such documents that takes the protection of individual rights as a central guiding pillar. Needless to say, protection of individual rights and any form of a legitimate social contract were entirely absent under Apartheid.

Benatar admittedly pulls few punches in describing the disruptive protesters as “marauding thugs,” though considering what has transpired since he penned his piece, this description actually seems far too moderate. Among the most important lines from the philosopher’s essay is the notion that “you must obey the laws you don’t like because otherwise you’ll have no grounds for expecting me to obey those laws I don’t like,” suggesting that for a civilized society to function the majority have to on occasion follow annoying or seemingly petty statutes. It might slow me down to stop at a red light, for instance, but if everyone suddenly decided to ignore red lights as an unnecessary encumbrance to hastily reaching their destination, chaos would soon ensue. There has to be some sacrifice of personal volition for the greater good of all, in other words. Those who deny this basic premise are either being adamantly obtuse or they have not thought through the implications of an alternative. Benatar notes that “student protesters want things both ways,” expecting the “University to comply with the law while they themselves trample all over it,” demanding their rights even as they routinely violate the “rights of those whose education they disrupt, those whom they intimidate and harass (sometimes with racist invective), and in some cases, those whom they physically assault.”

The “argument,” such as it is, presented by the Fees Must Fall crew is that the current state of affairs is deeply unjust, and of course “violent,” therefore justifying violently disruptive actions. Setting aside the claim that entering a lecture hall and forcing students and the lecturer to leave against their will constitutes a peaceful action, which I have heard first-hand, it does confound comprehension how one injustice, namely the lack of access certain poor students have to higher education, can be remedied with another injustice, particularly when none of the students compelled to suspend their studies can possibly assist their excluded peers. There are really only two ways to defend the current abrogation of individual rights, neither of which are particularly palatable. Protesters can claim that they operate under a kind of state of exception, meaning that they reserve to themselves the right to disrupt other people’s lives while no similar action can be directed their way. Considering the intolerance for peaceful counter protests witnessed at Wits and elsewhere, this exceptionalism is already something of a guiding principle, whether or not it is expressly subscribed to. The other defence, if you will, is to advocate that everyone has the right to do just as they please. The inevitable outcome of such a generalised maxim, to borrow from Kant, produces a society of perpetual anarchic chaos, something akin to Somalia or Libya where law and order has almost completely broken down. The two options, therefore, are either blatantly hypocritical or consistently destructive.

The protesters and their useful idiot supporters are making a similar mistake to libertarian ideologues who insist that individual rights are everything, though they do so from the opposite end. As acknowledged, much more needs to be done to achieve better collective outcomes for South Africa’s impoverished citizens, but no society anywhere ever became better by sacrificing individual rights for the supposed greater collective good. There are all too many examples of nations, past and present, where precisely such an argument was proclaimed, the results rarely facilitating a flourishing citizenry. Collective and individual rights can and do go together, though sorting out the inevitable areas where they come into collision is an admittedly tricky process, and one even the most peaceful and robust democracies are still sorting through. Democracy is, after all, never a final destination but a perpetually ongoing process.

That such obvious observations elude Fees Must Fall’s defenders and vanguardists points again to the myriad ideological confusions that beset this movement. They want greater rights for poor students, even those who have committed criminal acts, but give no thought to denying the rights of those who want to continue with their studies, in the case of Wits a poll showed that an overwhelming 77% of students want to complete the academic year. They claim to be fighting “violence,” whether structural or otherwise, yet repeatedly burn buildings, hurl rocks at police, attack fire trucks, hurl fire bombs, and engage in verbal and physical intimidation of other students. They think compounding injustice with more injustice will somehow lead to greater justice, effectively arguing that 2 plus 2 equals 5. The Orwell reference is not incidental, by the by. To claim that a person’s identity is the sum total of the consideration needed to assess everything from someone’s arguments to the level of basic respect due to them, is in the final estimation a totalitarian perspective. Although this will be vociferously denied by ardent proponents, it totalises and essentialises contingent characteristics as much as right-wing race-fixated movements of years gone by, and which are ominously gaining traction in Europe once more. Once again, as with the issue of individual rights, excluding or undermining someone based on their race or gender is no real way to overcome racism or sexism. In light of the disdain for rationality and logic that is often expressed by Fees Must Fall activists, somehow implicating the exercise of the intellect in yet another insidious attempt to enforce Western norms, all the while casually employing Western-born terms such as “cisgendered,” it should be little wonder that so many terrible arguments, purely emotive hysteria, and intolerance for contrary views are so despairingly pervasive among these types. No matter how much you might wish it to be so, emotional intensity will never compensate for flawed reasoning and weak argumentative acumen.

In light of the foregoing, what we so desperately require is not “safe spaces” for previously disadvantaged people, or anyone else for that matter, to be protected from confronting a range of different opinions, but instead, as is supposed to be the very purpose of a university, the cultivation of an environment where even one’s most cherished views and preconceptions are respectfully subject to intellectually rigorous critical examination. It makes no sense to talk of interrogating others’ premises and arguments when you are not prepared to turn such analytical scrutiny upon yourself. If this call is in any way antithetical to students so keen on “free” and “decolonised” higher education, then they might want to reconsider why they want to attend university in the first place. Finally, if anything written here is discounted by virtue of my status as a cisgender white male, and not because of a flaw in reasoning or argumentation, you might want to ask even more serious questions about the nature of your worldview.