By Imraan Buccus
The University of KwaZulu Natal remains unstable. The recent protests have taken the form of arson attacks on buildings, including, outrageously, an HIV treatment centre, and a lecture hall. A few people have tried to give intellectual legitimacy to these attacks by arguing that Frantz Fanon, the famous decolonial philosopher, argued that violence can be liberating.
The first point to make is that we should not be surprised that there are annual protests on campuses. They have been happening for more than twenty years. Those of us who were students at the then University of Durban-Westville in the 1990s remember the annual protests at that time well. In those days the protests were directly linked to the left on and off campus and saw themselves as part of a bigger social justice project.
Today South Africa has a massive unemployment crisis and the economy is in steep decline. Most school leavers will not find jobs, and if they do find work it is likely to be exploitative and precarious. Under these circumstances access to university can mean the difference between a chance at a middle-class life and permanent poverty. For as long as these circumstances continue people will do all that they can to get into universities, and to have a chance of having a decent life. This is a social reality and it will not change for as long as the economy continues to decline as a result of the gross mismanagement and looting by the kleptocrats.
The second point to make is that protest seldom works when it does not have a disruptive element. Elites usually have to be forced to make concessions to the working class and the poor. This is why workers use the weapon of the strike to force concessions from the employers. A position that insists that protest should never be disruptive is a position that prefers the status quo to continue.
However, the third point to make is that this does not mean that all acts are permitted in the name of protest. In 2015 the student movement became a national phenomenon and won widespread popular support. When students parked on the Union Buildings in October that year large parts of the public, as well as trade unions and social movement activists, supported them. However, that public support was squandered when students in Cape Town burnt artworks, and students in Durban burnt a library. Attacks on art and libraries are usually a hallmark of fascism and this degeneration of the movement destroyed the movement’s public credibility. The movement went into rapid decline, and soon collapsed, after this degeneration.
No struggle can succeed if it does not build alliances, and this is one reason to avoid acts that turn society against protestors. But there is another reason. Some actions, like burning arts and libraries, are just unethical. The attempt to set a security guard alight at the Durban University of Technology (DUT) last year was an atrocious and criminal act. The fact that poor and working-class students continue to be denied access to university education on the basis of class is unacceptable. But it is no way justifies an attempt on the life of security guard.
The recent arson attack on the HIV treatment centre is particularly disturbing in a province that remains the global centre of a pandemic that continue to result in huge suffering. As Jeremy Cronin recently noted in a recent article the one major victory won by the left in South Africa is access to treatment for HIV and Aids. This victory has saved millions of lives and kept millions healthy.
That victory was primary won by the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), the most successful civil society organisation in post-apartheid South Africa, and one of the most impressive in the world during that period. But, as Cronin notes, the TAC would not have been able to win its victory without the support of the other left forces including the SACP, Cosatu and other progressives inside the ANC like Pregs Govender and Nomboniso Gasa.
When students attack an HIV treatment centre they attack a gain won from social mobilisation that makes a real difference to people’s lives. This is disgraceful. And attempts to legitimate this by using Fanon’s name are little more than the deliberate abuse of the legacy of a great thinker. The decolonial tradition is about building a better world, not an open licence for thuggery and recklessness. The fact that Fanon took a position in support of armed resistance to colonialism in the context of the war in Algeria can in no way be taken as justification for students in South Africa in 2020 to burn important social infrastructure.
The real problem here is twofold. The depth of the economic and social crisis is a central part of the problem as it can tempt people to engage in desperate acts. But the decline of the left is another dimension of the problem. The students fighting to access universities have a just cause. But they are not part of any broader project aimed at achieving social transformation. They make no effort to support struggles off campus, and sometimes ally themselves to the kleptocrats in the ANC and the EFF, people who literally enrich themselves by stealing from the poor. In some cases it appears that some of the students hope to join the ranks of the kleptocrats rather than to work to build a just society.
Although Cronin’s recent piece is not without its own sectarianism and unfortunate recourse to personal insults he does indicate some willingness to move beyond the sectarian divides that have crippled the left in South Africa. If the left in the SACP, Cosatu, Saftu and Abahlali baseMjondolo could at least learn to work together on issues of shared interest they would, together, be a serious social force. A rejuvenated left would be likely to win support from students, and could create a new consensus around the need for forms of struggle that do not compromise on their commitment to social justice, but also refrain from collapsing into simple thuggery, and seriously unethical acts.
The TAC remains a shining example of how a struggle can organise large numbers of people, build important alliances, and win major victories, while not compromising itself ethically. Although it has often been compromised in recent years, with Sadtu and Samwu being particularly egregious cases of degeneration, the trade union movement also has an impressive history in this regard. But if the left continues to be divided into different organisations and sectors that do not work together, and there is no real left on the campuses anymore, opportunists and thugs will continue to be able to hijack an important and legitimate struggle.
The solution to the current crisis on campuses is not to supress the legitimate demand for access to education. The solution is to build a genuinely progressive movement to campaign for access to education as part of a broader project of social justice. That movement should organise in a way that prefigures the society that it wants to build, a society based on democratic values, mutual respect and a fair distribution of wealth and opportunity. It should engage in acts of disruption as it tries to force social change. But it should never tolerate acts like burning an HIV treatment centre, or burning works of art, or a library, or making an attempt on the life of a security guard.
Imraan Buccus is Al Qalam editor, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad program on political transformation.