How student power gave workers hope

‘What was different this time in our struggle against outsourcing?” Deliwe Mzobe, a cleaner at the University of the Witwatersrand, pondered the question. “I think it was the voice of the students. The students came out and showed how powerful they are.”

Mzobe answered the question with Wits’s history of activism against outsourcing in the back of her mind. The 15-year battle was finally won last Sunday.

Submitting to rolling worker and student protests that had shut down the university for three weeks, Wits’s management finally agreed to direct employment of support service staff by the university. A task team, comprising workers, students, academics and management, will determine how best to do this.

This was a change of tune; vice-chancellor Adam Habib, like Loyiso Nongxa before him, had previously maintained that Wits could not afford to employ workers directly, unless student fees or government subsidies increased drastically.

Habib also agreed that outsourcing is exploitative.

Max Price, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, had also held the same position. As recently as last month, UCT said “outsourcing is the most efficient, cost-effective option” for its support services.

Rebuffing demands to employ people directly, UCT cited a 2014 council-commissioned report estimating that this would cost the institution an additional R58?million a year, and that R68?million was required upfront to purchase equipment. “The university will not be able to absorb this cost without raising student tuition fees significantly, and this would impair student access to UCT,” it said.

Forcing a change
But unrelenting student and worker protests forced a change of heart at UCT too. The university is now working out details of bringing cleaning, catering, grounds and gardening services, campus

protection, and student and staff transport in-house. UCT and Wits introduced outsourcing in 1999 and 2000 respectively, a process that saw hundreds of support service workers retrenched by the universities. Many of the workers returned to their posts as employees of private companies with reduced salaries and no benefits.

The basic salary for a cleaner at Wits is R2 700, but activists at Wits and UCT are apparently pushing for at least R6 500. As employees, support service workers will be eligible for benefits, including provident funds, medical aid and free tertiary education for their children.

UCT spokesperson Patricia Lucas said the university is still figuring out how to pay the support staff. “UCT is consulting stakeholders, including government, about funding in general after the decision to commit to a 0% tuition fee increase. The financial implications of ‘insourcing’ are also under discussion.”

To outsourced workers, “it’s 1994 all over again. We have found new freedom,” exclaimed Mzobe.

The problem with previous protests demanding the abolition of outsourcing was the lack of mass support from students, she said. “This time the students united and protested from university to university.

Mothers and fathers
“It started as a no-fee-increment protest, but while saying that they also included us, saying: ‘This is also about our mothers and fathers, who’ve been suffering for far too long,’?” said Mzobe.

“The power of students made our voices to be heard as well. All along we have been mobilising students to assist us, but it would be a few brave students like Mbuyiseni [Ndlozi of the Economic Freedom Fighters, when he was still on campus].

“The rest used to have a ‘mind your own business’ attitude, but this time it was different because all students were out there. That’s what’s made a huge difference,” Mzobe said.

A rift emerged among students following President Jacob Zuma’s announcement that university vice-chancellors had agreed to 0% fee increases for next year. A number of Wits students pulled out of protesting, arguing that the battle had been won. But many stayed put, joining forces with workers to demand that they be employed directly by the institution.

Mzobe said the workers are grateful to this group: “I’m very happy that they didn’t pull out on us. Yes, some pulled out. Only those who decided to stick with the cause and say: ‘We’re not going back’, stayed.”

She said, even after Zuma’s announcement, workers were reassured by students through a WhatsApp group “that the struggle was not over”.

Vuyani Pambo, leader of the EFF Student Command at Wits, said that after their fees victory the students took a considered decision to tackle the matter of outsourcing services.

Leigh-Ann Naidoo, an activist and Wits PhD student, attributes the increase in student support for workers’ struggles on campus to a new wave of consciousness.

“People are reading [Frantz] Fanon and others who speak specifically to the question of decolonisation,” she said.

“When #RhodesMustFall and other student movements across the country were saying they want to decolonise universities, what they are saying fundamentally is that the colonial systems and structures do not work for the majority of indigenous black people and they want to change that system.”

Noor Nieftagodien, a senior lecturer in Wits’s history department, said Wits academics and students have been opposing outsourcing since he was studying towards his PhD there in 2000. “And that battle was lost in the senate, in the council, as the majority of people at the university voted in favour [of outsourcing].”

The criticism never subsided, he said. “It’s taken far too long, 15 years, for the university to acknowledge that outsourcing was fundamentally wrong, that it treated workers as second-class citizens. Workers were segregated and paid very low wages.”

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Bongani Nkosi
Bongani is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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