October 27, 2020

Political parties tried to capture student protests

Looking back on recent student unrest the Vice Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, Adam Habib, says the moment the #Feesmustfall movement went wrong was when political parties moved in thinking that they could use the momentum for their own ends. The Deputy Editor of New Agenda, MICHAEL NASSEN SMITH, interviewed him.

New Agenda:

Would it be correct to say that the struggle started as a legitimate student movement but lost its way due to strategic, political and even moral errors. Is that a fair depiction? Would you have anything to add?

Adam Habib:

I think it is and I think that is a fair point. It was a legitimate movement focusing on a set of legitimate issues. It begins on issues of alienation and access. It had quick successes that surprised us and the leaders of the movement. But it factionalised quickly after the initial successes. And certain factions picked up moral and strategic errors, and other factions were not able to stand up to that. This led to the movement losing some legitimacy. It worries me for the movement but also for the project of transformation at the university. When people write about social movements, they forget that these movements have an evolution. Progressives often love to romanticise social movements and I have been guilty of this too. But social movements can evolve in regressive directions. People don’t seem to want to see this and we need to recognise this tendency. We mustn’t hide from it and must understand why it happens and how to avoid it.

New Agenda:

Was the factionalism of the student movement due to opportunistic elements within it?

Adam Habib:

I think that is partly true, but it is not the main development. Everybody was astonished at how quickly the student movement rooted. Everyone understood the resonance it had. We met then President Zuma two weeks before the crisis. I was having debates with other VCs and saying we are heading for an explosion. We knew this would happen but just didn’t know how quickly it was going to come. Prior to our meeting with Zuma, I met a bank CEO and said: “if the universities explode you are also going to lose as you will have no graduates.” When the movement exploded it also took the student leaders by surprise. Some of the other VCs blamed me for the spread because I gave the movement legitimacy and energy by spending the night with Wits students. In the book I intimate “What makes you think I didn’t like that? I think this is a legitimate struggle.”

Obviously, any movement has opportunists. But the real moment this movement goes wrong is with the political parties. When this movement succeeded far more than anyone imagined, the parties thought that they could use the movement for their own ends. I remember having a conversation with [then Minister of Higher Education] Blade Nzimande who thought that the ANC students had control. But [Julius ]Malema [of the Economic Freedom Fighters] also thought he had control. So all of the parties made an effort to control the movement and, in doing so, they factionalised it. Other than the ANC and EFF there were “far left” elements ‑ remnants of WOSA [the Workers’ Organisation for Socialist Action], the SRWP [Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party], NUMSA [National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa] who also thought: “this is the revolution”. Each one began to make a play for the movement. The movement also gave rise to PASMA [Pan Africanist Student Movement of Azania. The PAC [Pan Africanist Congress of Azania] saw young kids using rhetoric of the PAC and so they organised quickly. All kinds of political parties swept in.

This is an extract from the latest issue of New Agenda: South African Journal of Social and Economic Policy, published by the Institute for African Alternatives and edited by Prof Ben Turok.

Read the rest of this article, and receive a complimentary copy of this issue of IFAA's flagship publication. You can also subscribe to the journal, from R150 per annum.


Last modified on Saturday, 17 August 2019 15:38

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