Who pulled civil society’s strings?

The student protests demanding that the government provide more fee subsidies were justified by circumstances. But, because the students didn’t build alliances or provide a socioeconomic context for their demands, these were seen as reactionary.

They amounted to reprioritising spending (a small but not insignificant fraction of the national budget) from the poor to the elite, to assist the children of the petit bourgeois to get jobs to serve the bourgeoisie.

What was interesting about the protests was not the students’ circumstances but the response of what is usually called civil society. The fact that the protests were conducted under the eyes of the nation’s supposed intellectual elite, and were highly accessible, made the response of “civil society” even more interesting.

The media’s unanimity in supporting the students was remarkable. Usually it is unsympathetic to riotous assemblies, calls for increased state spending or left-wing student demands. In this case, the media pretended to abandon their right-wing bias: Business Day called for anarchy and the redistribution of wealth; SAfm castigated the ANC in the name of radical revolution.

Granted, there was a natural class solidarity between petit bourgeois journalists and students, and the radicalism of the students’ demands was largely hokum, but still it was odd; it was as if the media were different heads of the same immense pustule, all weeping at once.

Another point about the media: the arson, looting and other forms of violence that characterised the student protests were largely ignored at first. After 10 days or so they were trotted out as “rogue elements”, as if someone had decided the protests ought to be discouraged and discredited. Again, surprising unanimity, first of suppression and then revelation.

Universities are autonomous institutions, which mysteriously all increased their fees at the same rate, like banks, and then simultaneously decided to reduce their fees at the same rate, like banks. Usually, when students get “out of hand”, universities shut themselves down.

Some years ago, Fort Hare vice-chancellor Derrick Swartz summoned a senate to discuss 20 students who were jumping up and down at the main gate for some reason. Senate resolved this didn’t justify closing the university. But Fort Hare was shut down by the time we got back to our offices. So much for democratic decision-making bodies.

This time, virtually all university managements decided, first, to withdraw all security from campus and, second, to withdraw teachers and support staff from campus, giving the students nothing to do, nothing to eat and no supervision. It was as if university managements had decided to facilitate chaos on their campuses.

When people are charging around blocking roads and damaging property, it is traditional for the police to take brutal action, as they do at many service delivery protests. I wouldn’t say the police acted with kid gloves, but they did cause fewer injuries and made fewer arrests than is usual. Perhaps they were afraid of the wrath of the bourgeoisie; perhaps they were warned not to take too firm a stance. Who was warning them, given the vacuum in the police command structure at the time?

As for the “organs of civil society”, their performance was dire. The ANC and Democratic Alliance took identical stands of support for the students, which were, as columnist Gareth van Onselen has pointed out, completely at variance with their actual political agendas. The DA blamed the crisis on the ANC – which is true, except that the ANC’s behaviour towards universities is wholly driven by the neoliberal ideology the DA exists to further and impose.

The Economic Freedom Fighters’ support for the students was at least consistent with their professed leftist principles, but they made no attempt to contextualise or intellectually critique the students’ stand, the responsible leftist thing to do.

The non-Charterist left performed equally abysmally. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) threatened the government – threatened to consult the trade unions that have failed to join Numsa’s counter-Cosatu proposition – if the student demands were not met. Apart from being risible, this feeble gesture was justified on the grounds that an attack on the petit bourgeois students was an attack on the working class – probably the stupidest political utterance made in South Africa this century.

Virtually all “civil society” postures were aimed at appropriating or co-opting the student movement. This is particularly ill-advised because the movement shows no sign of enduring, so that these organisations cannot tell the difference between a real radical movement and a crowd of political performance artists.

The students’ behaviour is understandable, forgivable – even, sometimes, praiseworthy. But “civil society’s” behaviour strikes me as an orchestrated puppet show that doesn’t even try to conceal its strings. One wonders who is pulling them.

Matthew Blatchford teaches at the University of Fort Hare

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