The workers and students’ alliance was consolidated on the strength of three different ideologies which are Black consciousness, Black feminism and Marxism. The alliance was formed at the behest of workers and students fighting for a decent wage, the abolition of tuition fees, University transformation, and the insourcing of all university labour services
by Ashley Nyiko Mabasa
On 6 October 2016, a group of resilient students and workers gathered at the Matrix shopping centre at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) under the banner of a movement called Workers Solidarity. They started a massive protest that moved to the Senate House (renamed Solomon Mahlangu House) to face the veranda of the Vice- Chancellor’s office.
These events occurred after a relentless project against outsourcing of the University’s labour service, sub-contracting and ill-treatment of workers. Here I will reflect on student and worker alliances during the struggle to end outsourcing of services at the University of the Witwatersrand, drawing on my experience and position within the student movement i.e. political subjectivity, consciousness and ideology.
The students started to organise themselves under their respective political formations, namely the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA), which is an alliance comprising of the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL), the Young Communist League of South Africa (YCLSA), and the South African Students Movement (SASCO). Students started organising along these lines on the 14th of October 2015, a week after the 6 October 2015 protest. On 14 October 2015 they barricaded Wits Main campus early in the morning and consolidated their mass support base. The University was subsequently shut-down and all academic programmes cancelled.
The #FeesMustFall movement was inspired by the emergence of the #RhodesMustFall at the University of Cape Town. The demands by the #FeesMustFall movement predates current activism, though its articulation changed over the past years since the 1968 formation of South Africa Student Organisation (SASO). This struggle for free education was informed by three categories of ideologies—the Black consciousness, radical black feminism and Marxist activists. Looking at the way these different strengths of ideologies prevailed I argue that at the centre of the students’ demands was a rejection of neo-liberal capitalism and market orientated University education.
The students and the workers viewed the fee increment and outsourcing of the predominantly black workers as ethically reprehensible. Henceforth, they aligned mainly because the University, without cleaning services, would be ungovernable and automatically be dysfunctional. In other words, the notorious actions of the protesters disrupted the normal operation of the University system, which resulted in a shutdown.
Political reflection: Students and workers’ alliance
The students and workers alliance emerged from a history tied to the way the workers were treated since the University made a U-turn in 1999 when it outsourced cleaning staff. I view the struggle of the workers as intertwined with our struggle for free education, hence #FeesMustFall merged the workers’ demands and our demands as students. Clearly, we just need to understand the power of working-class solidarity in the struggle. The power relations within the university space shaped the alliance between students and workers. In other words, the power balance within the University relied on the organisational power of the subaltern group – poor workers and students shaped the class alliance between workers and students.
Again, the workers and students’ alliance was consolidated on the strength of three different ideologies which are Black consciousness, Black feminism and Marxism. The alliance was formed at the behest of workers and students fighting for a decent wage, the abolition of tuition fees, University transformation, and the insourcing of all university labour services. This made these three different ideologies to converge.
The #FeesMustfFall protest emerged as a broad front which encompassed many ideological perspectives. The protest expressed the broad interests of the students and workers. A militant Black feminist group emerged during the protest and assumed Mbokodo as its name. It articulated a number of issues on gender and tackled head on the marginalisation of women within the movement.
Those who constituted Mbokodo were drawn from different political allegiances as they appropriated doeks as a symbol of protest and a rejection of being silenced. The doek has a history symbolising women subordination to patriarchy in many African contexts. The feminists group contested power and asserted sisterhood and the position of women within the movement. This group became a natural ally of the workers who are in the majority cleaners and women that students viewed as their mothers.
Another group of students within the movement was attached to the Marxist tradition and attributed high tuition fees to capitalism, particularly in its neo-liberal form. This group advocated for the decommodification of education to address the tuition fees crisis. On the other hand, there was a group inclined to Black radical thought which advanced the demand for free education, decolonisation and the ending of outsourcing. This group paid lip service to some of the issues raised by the Mbokodos.
Notwithstanding the ideological differences, these groups contested social and political space and the leadership of the #FeesMustFall protest. The emergence of a radical feminist movement marked a shift in the politics of the student movement, particularly at former white Universities such as University of the Witwatersrand and University of Cape Town. Previous campaigns have confined the gender issue to representation and composition of political leadership whilst the feminists elevated the debate to gender relations within and outside universities, for example gendered experiences of exploitation etc.
The Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command (EFFSC) attempted to drive the ideological perspective of the #FeesMustFall movement. In one of the #FeesMustFall movement debriefings they raised issues central to decolonization, such as changing the university building names, as well as decolonizing pedagogy and the curriculum. The EFFSC over-emphasized race domination whereas the PYA-led Students Representative Council, which espoused Marxist ideas, emphasised class inequality and poverty as the main challenges in the post-apartheid dispensation, and viewed these as being racialized and gendered.
The University represented one such space where this inequality prevailed. The ideological perspective adopted by the #FeesMustFall protest lacked a coherent political programme to guide the movement because of divisions expressed by student political formations, i.e. EFFSC and Progressive Youth Alliance.
Moreover, Democratic Alliance Student Organisation (DASO) – the student movement aligned with Democratic Alliance (DA) – was not clear in their support for #FeesMustFall in 2015 and 2016. This came as no surprise since the DA’s ideological direction points to defending bourgeoisie liberal democracy notions of individualism. In 2018, the DA’s Shadow minister of Higher Education and Training, Belinda Bozzoli, asserted that students who were part of #FeesMustFall must face persecution for transgressing against the liberal idea of the social contract. She contends:
“The aggression — ranging from intimidation of other people, students and staff, through to looting of university property, right down to burning down buildings such as bookshops, lecture halls and residences — is a sign of very serious breakdown in the social contract, and testimony to the fact that our institutions of learning have become unpleasant and often frightening places to learn and teach.”
However, #FeesMustFall defied DA’s conception of the social contract premised on bourgeoisie liberal democracy. #FeesMustFall Movement understood at that time that revolutionary action was necessary to challenge neo-liberal university policies and DA’s conception of social contract through disruption of classes and shutting the university down. DASO continue to remain in the era of the 19th century which was defined by European modernity and it’s notions of civility.
After the 1789 French Revolution the reign of monarchs and feudal churches was dismantled by the collaboration effort of liberal bourgeois and the working class and a new social contract was drawn that society must be governed by Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. This, the tenet of social contract defined by French Revolution, excluded slaves and poor Europeans in its understanding of a citizen. In the context of South Africa, DA continues to embrace the social contract that was racially defined and which historically excluded the subalterns.
Hence, they were hesitant to support the movement for inclusive and free education for the poor. However, DASO’s scepticism of #FeesMustFall resulted in their (Neo) liberalism ideology not finding expression. This is not to deny that liberals and individualists were not part of the #FeesMustFall, but is to say that (neo) liberalism ideas were not organised and did not contribute to collective action.
Although driven by different ideological perspectives, the black radical thought and Marxist inclined perspective the students adopted the same conclusion following a different trajectory. The demand of free quality education, university transformation, insourcing of the labour service and lowering of the tuition fees became the overarching demands. This later evolved to free quality decolonised education. However, I argue that the shortcoming of Black radical thought perspective is that it is vacuous and nationalist and is not amenable to the cessation of exploitation of the workers. They demanded the restoration of workers’ dignity through expropriation of the land. Their main limitation was that they viewed the University bureaucracy as the main enemy instead of the system driven by a hegemonic socio-economic structure of neo-liberalism. Looking at the ideological contestation between the EFFSC and PYA was an integral part of the political struggle over the future of student politics—reconfiguring the #FeesMustFall victory, winning of the workers and students support including winning Student Representative Council (SRC) elections.
Race discourse was at the forefront amongst students across ideological divide except the DA. Marxist inclined students understood University red tape and bureaucracy as systematic financial exclusion of the majority of Black students in the neo-liberal University. At the same time, they understood inequality as an intersection of race and gender. They contended that majority of students faced with financial and academic challenges were Black and female. Meaning that material conditions of students and workers cemented the alliance.
The majority of the protestors were not informed by social theory. They were not driven by revolutionary literature such as Marxism, Black radical thought or feminist literature, to understand the material relations between their oppression as Black students and students from working class backgrounds. However, this posed a limitation to the protest, for example, the failure to adequately understand the struggle of the workers by some of the students. Some of the students distanced themselves from any political formation or labour movement. This may be explained by the lack of a clear coherent political programme and ideology within the movement. However, the participation of academic staff largely from Social Sciences and post-graduate students cemented the student leadership’s understanding of outsourcing labour services and the strategy to overcome it.
Ideology and collective subjectivity and strategy: students and worker alliance
The reality is that the #FeesMustFall movement’s ideological strengths produced a political strategy and improved political consciousness with an aim to transform social relations in our society. The #FeesMustFall was predominated by Black students and Black workers, meaning the movement’s ideologies and workers material conditions culminated in different conditions. Hence, students and workers started their dialogue on the basis of their material condition as black workers and most of them women. The #FeesMustFall movement needed the direct support of workers whilst the workers required #FeesMustFall as a vehicle to fight for insourcing and free education.
The consolidation of different strength of ideologies shaped the movement’s collective political subjectivity and strengthened workers and students’ alliance. Not every students read the political literature or revolutionary theories on how to guide protest strategies and tactics. The PYA and EFF student formations were able to influence the movement to be inclusive in fighting the decolonisation of education, decommodification and insourcing of all support staff although they had different ideological orientations.
I will try to explain this by drawing from the debate in the late 1970’s between Archie Mafeje and Ruth First on the aftermath of the 1976 student uprising in South Africa. Archie Mafeje was a great intellectual who, in 1968, was unfairly denied a senior lectureship position at the University of Cape Town because of apartheid discrimination laws. Ruth First was an organic intellectual and truly committed activist in the struggle against apartheid—she also served as the National Secretary of the Young Communist League of South Africa (YCLSA). There are a number of issues raised by Mafeje and First in this debate. The debate raises a number of issues such as student-worker alliances; Black consciousness; the two-stage revolution theory, to questions on strategy and tactics. I find this debate even more relevant in the current phase of our revolution in terms of decolonisation, transformation, gender equality and free education.
Nevertheless, I will put my focus on the aspects of strategy and tactics as these are more relevant to the #FeesMmustfFall movement in context to Wits workers and students’ alliance. The practical approach to political tactics within the #FeesMmustFall movement vindicates Ruth First in this debate. She argues that you do not have to understand the literature in order to understand the struggle. Consciousness will develop through experience during the struggle. On the other hand, Mafeje’s argument sounds simple. He argues that any revolutionary practice requires a guiding theory, a coherent political programme, and a clear strategy. He expected student movements to have a perfect and clear plan before embarking on political action.
It is important to engage in this scholarly debate without dismissing a need for theory to guide political action. It is not always necessary to have a tight and clearly outlined political programme to engage in political action. In other words, there is no such thing as a perfect revolution with a predetermined destiny. As First puts it: “every revolution begins by asserting often fairly minimalist, immediate demands” and the full confrontation with state power gradually expands to a full-scale.
My experience in the #FeesMustFall protest clearly shows that in practice, protesters understood Ruth First very well: one does not need a perfect strategy and tactics to engage in political action. My experience with PYA student mass protests is that of real leaders of the student movement who despise politics of abstinence, always reflect theory.
The #FeesMustFall leaders did not care much about finding any right theory to guide organising of workers and students alliance. They understood that the minimalist and immediate demands for student financial aid formed part of the broader struggle against the outsourced labour service. The protesters did not crack their heads in attempts to theorise the dialectical links between the students’ struggle and how these were part of the broader struggle against the outsourcing of the workers.
The #FeesMustFall protesters, in a practical way, rejected Mafeje’s conceptualisation of a successful revolution. Ruth First terms Mafeje’s approach ‘abstract theoreticist reservations’ as advocated by arm-chair revolutionary intellectuals like Archie Mafeje’. Without reading First students understood her when she said: “revolutionary programmes have to be won not only in the head, but in the streets, towns, factories and countryside [and campuses], and by engaging in the struggle, not abstaining from it because it does not start with perfected long-term programme”. Students and the workers understood Ruth First well, some even without reading her. The workers and students’ alliance was forged on the basis of collective political subjectivity.
The reality is that we cannot avoid the significance of the workers’ contribution in the #FeesMustFall movement. They were not passive observers in the redress of University systems. They consolidated their struggles against fee increments and outsourcing of University labour services. Ultimately Wits University, the University of Cape Town, Rhodes University and the University of Pretoria reached an agreement with the students and workers in principle to insource all outsourced workers in 2016, years after the universities committed to insource the university’s marginalised workers.
After a year, Former President Jacob Zuma in the ANC 54th National Congress at Nasrec announced that government will provide free higher education to students with below R350 000 combined house hold income. This was a historic victory for students and those who advanced the fight for free high education from SASO days.
The students and workers’ alliance showed commitment in combating the social injustice posed by the University system. In other words, the workers and students are not passive observers of transformation discourse. #FeesMustfFall movement opened debate about the higher education funding crisis. The student movement did not dismiss the working-class participation in its transformation agenda.
Bezuidenhout, A, and K. Fakier. 2006. “Maria’s Burden: Contract Cleaning and the Crisis of Social Reproduction in Post-apartheid South Africa’ in Antipode Vol. 38: pp 462-485
First, R., 1978. ‘After Soweto. Review of African Political Economy, 5(11), pp. 93-100.
Mafeje, A., 1978. ‘Soweto and its aftermath’. Review of African Political Economy, 5(11), pp. 17-30.
Leatt, James & Kniel, Theo and Nurnberger, Klaus. 1986. “Contending Ideologies in South Africa”
Ashley Nyiko Mabasa
Former Wits SRC Secretary General
Masters Student of Labour and Economic Sociology (Wits University)
 Black Consciousness according to Steve Biko is to “end of the process real black people, who do not regard themselves as appendages to white society. Some will charge that we are racist, but these people are using exactly the values we reject. We do not have the power to subjugate anyone. Racism does not only imply exclusion of one race by another—it always presupposes that exclusion is for purposes of subjugation. Blacks have had enough experience as objects of racism not to wish to turn the tables ( Leatt, James & Kniel, Theo and Nurnberger, Klaus, 1986)
 BusinessDay, “Destructive Fees Must Fall protests cost universities R786m” 08 August 2018
 Subaltern referring to the marginalized which in this context includes the poor and the working class.
 In essence the students first demanded the lowing of the tuition fees and later demanded after the former President Jacob Zuma demanded that all universities not to increase fees the students then demanded that the free fees universities.
 Marxism “is that form of socialism which draws inspiration for its analysis and strategy from the thought of Karl Marx. All Marxist are socialists, but not all socialists are Marxists” (Leatt, James & Kniel, Theo and Nurnberger, Klaus. 1986)
 First Ruth, After Soweto: A response, 1978
 First Ruth, After Soweto: A response, 1978