Khutbah by Ihsaan Bassier delivered on Friday 21 October 2016
Student perspectives on protests, free education and the urgency of decolonisation
Repected Jamaah, shukran for letting me speak. I love this masjid because it is unapologetically political. We recognise that we are part of a system with structural injustice. We ask uncomfortable questions, of Islam, of ourselves, of society. Gender, sexuality, xenophobia. We strive to centre justice and the voice of the marginalised.
We have been talking about how South Africa’s current path cannot continue. The majority of the country is destitute, a small minority is wealthy, and the chances of changing one’s class position are miniscule. This path relies on the silencing of structural injustices, the suppression of near-constant service delivery protests. Who benefits from growth, who remains dispossessed, and what are the structural causes? Oxfam reports that the wealth of South Africa’s top 10% has grown by 64% in the first 17 years after 1994, while the poorest 10% saw no growth whatsoever.
For all our shortcomings, this congregation dreams of another path. We imagine, unafraid in our philosophy of discomfort or inconvenience. We refuse for cries of injustice to be suppressed. Like this Jamaah, students around the country are heeding the call and demanding answers from centres of power, like UCT. For many, especially the cosy, this path is not welcome.
Before I continue, please remember that I am stitching together thoughts across protest spaces, mostly from UCT. These conversations have been going on for a long time. Also, because I care so much and have my own views, sometimes I come across as confrontational. I hope this is not seen as an attack, but rather a contribution to the ethos of justice that we have built as a jamaah. In this lecture, I wish to provide perspectives from student protesters, and then talk directly to free decolonial education.
I want to sketch a typical day of a protester, at least at UCT. We meet at 7am to sing in a circle on the road. For hours and with the aim of shutting down the university, we walk through the campus, congregating in buildings while singing until classes are called off or labs are shut down. Heavy police and security presence tails us, usually about 6 vans of muscular men in riot gear. Some days there’s an altercation, provoked by security hitting a student or students walking onto a public road. Stun grenades go off, many students are pepper sprayed or shot, and a few students are arrested.
By midday, the university has announced its closure, workers are able to join, and we are congregated in a central place. Often, a political education lecture is given on intersectionality, history or any number of issues relating to decolonisation. Then, more meetings – statements need to be written, demands need to be communicated, meetings with workers and communities, and arrested protesters need to be tracked down.
Late in the evening, usually until 11pm, plenary is held to discuss the day’s events and future strategy. There’s a constant struggle in these meetings against inherited power structures: tendencies of patriarchy, marginalisation of workers, undemocratic practices. The contestation is fierce, but the chair maintains discipline through ground rules of respect. Sometimes we’ll leave inspired by developments, hopeful; other times, disillusioned by our leadership and the mounting costs. We go home exhausted, weighed down by the irreconcilable issues at stake.
I want to convey that protesting is neither fun nor unconsidered. It involves extreme emotional and physical labour, daunting personal costs, and impossible choices.
Why are we in such a conflicting space? Our social context is the premise for dissatisfaction and agitation against those with power. Understand that universities like UCT are at the helm of this country’s path. A week ago, the convenor of one of UCT’s biggest courses insisted to me that the primary aim of the course is not to educate, but to fail the “riff raff that slip into university”. Racism, exclusion and disregard for our social crisis by lecturers, heads of department, and the very administrators tasked with transformation are part of the student experience.
But this institutional distrust has been exacerbated over the last weeks because of the heavy militarisation of our campus spaces and attempts to derail and suppress student voices. You have video evidence of some of the incidents. Students are routinely shot in the back while running away, at Wits and UKZN and UCT. Yesterday, Shaeera Kalla was shot 13 times in the back while her hands were up saying, “We are peaceful, don’t shoot.” Arrests are facilitated by university-contracted security and police, often with absolutely no charges or with minor offences, locking away students as criminals in maximum security prisons like Pollsmoor in Cape Town and Sun City in Johannesburg. Traumatising, debilitating, angering.
What is the protesting students’ strategy? The protests question the social context, but are targeted towards free decolonial education. The usual strategies are employed: open meetings, statements, marches and negotiation. A break from upper class modes of engagement is disruption. For example, shutting down the university. This strategy is very effective at gaining attention and leverage, and is a mechanism of expression for a deeply affected minority. Mostly though, disruption calls into question the line between active and passive exclusion. Protesters disrupt access to education for some, but universities which deny access because of fees are somehow perceived very differently.
Let me be clear: Burning paintings or buildings is not “a strategy” taken by the movement. It’s almost as if people think protests are clean and predictable. Here is an extract from a report of protests in 1976, which are rightfully honoured for their display of courage and resistance:
“Dogs were turned on the crowd, tear gas was thrown and, after the crowd responded with stones, the police fired. Three bodies were moved after the demonstrators retreated. On the night of 12 August, any administrative buildings, beerhalls, bottlestores or shops that had not yet been gutted were destroyed. Some R2, 000,000 worth of damage was done in 36 hours of fighting.”
Protests that escalate involve anger. The incidents of violence perpetrated by students is for many a sticking point preventing support of protesters. I struggle to understand this. No decision has ever been taken by the decision-making forums to harm people. Individuals sometimes act independently in reaction to extreme police violence, and egregious acts of personal violence are often condemned. For example, this statement was released when two security guards were hospitalised after a building was burnt at CPUT: “FMF CPUT would like to repudiate and lament with the harshest possible terms thuggery elements, torching of buildings (Arson) and vandalism that happened overnight, when we sleeping.”
At the same time, we must ask some basic questions. Why are people so quick to condemn this type of violence, but slow to condemn structural violence? How can the particular students be held fully responsible when the climate of hostility and precipitating brutality by security and police directly lead to their acts? What does it mean when a community activist condemns student acts of violence, even as UCT council or the government capitalise on these sporadic acts to win public sympathy? And even if the movement is held responsible, why does this prevent so many from mobilising behind the clear principles of decolonisation?
Of course, none of this is to say that actions don’t matter or don’t have consequences. We must remain vigilant. I suggest the following guidelines for being critical.
Secondly, I urge you to think about information outlets. For example, UCT management has a strong advantage in controlling the narrative, through their institutional power and access to all students through emails. Don’t dismiss the malicious dissemination of information. Protesters are vilified, portrayed as violent unintelligible hooligans and UCT routinely omits abuses by private security. Given its interests, again this should be no surprise. But we are reluctant to discredit powerful structures.
Thirdly, there are many important criticisms that protesting students wholeheartedly agree with. For example, it is 100% true that as bourgeois or potentially bourgeoise, we should do far more to centre working class interests. There are connections with workers on campus, with the striking Robertson farm workers, with mosques like now. But we should do far more. Other times students are doing a lot and the criticism is an unfair burden. For example, the criticism that students should propose solutions for free education too – but students have written and proposed models, which is more than the prodigious resources of treasury or UCT can say.
Note throughout, you are participants, not critical observers. Ebrahim Fourie from Housing Assembly said in an interview with students: “When we speak about “everyone an organiser”, we do not want that [sic: person] sitting at home like I am a saviour. […] Everyone an organiser – whether it is in the church, on the bus. Not necessarily radical, just contributing. Democratic participation, we need to build in every sphere of the struggle.”
I end this first part of the khutbah with a quote from student activist Leigh Ann Naidoo, describing protests:
“We are in the midst of an intense politics of time. It is not easy to accept the burden of a living, prefigurative politics. Immanence is difficult. The fear is intense, and the threat of failure is everywhere. How do we sit, collectively, in the middle of that discomfort, prepared to not know quite where we are going, but be convinced that we have to move?
I turn now to the economics behind free education. Now, the call is actually for free decolonial education. You can’t decouple the two. Free education only makes sense if universities are serving public interests rather than reproducing privilege.
We reject the current hierarchy where ivory tower theorising is glorified. Knowledge should be collective rather than marginalising the everyday lived experiences of the working class; it should be accessible to anyone, be they a cafeteria worker or cleaner; it should be celebrated. Education is a social need and a public good. When I think on my university degree, I am well aware that I have forgotten most of my courses. There is ample research suggesting that much of university education does not teach you anything: it only serves to differentiate you from the person who could not afford it. This must change.
What is the crisis in universities? Every year, about 200 000 qualifying school kids do not reach university simply because they cannot pay fees. This does not count all the students who are indirectly excluded because they don’t have accommodation or adequate support. Including these working class students aligns universities towards the public interest.
Is free education possible? Yes, indisputably. The real concern is, where will the money come from? Clearly, a transfer from basic education, healthcare or housing is unacceptable. The model proposed by Wits FeesMustFall protesters identified sources of revenue in line with the ideological outlook that the rich must pay: a wealth tax, higher corporate or personal tax, or mandatory national service for all graduates, similar to doctors.
Two economic questions arise. It is often said that increasing tax will disincentivise work. In reality, we don’t know. Certainly, there are many countries with far higher tax rates; this is actually a political economy question, where protesters are of the view that the wealthy have kept tax rates lower than they should be. Is it likely that tax will increase as a result of protests? This is probably the most important worry, that the state will ignore the models and appease protests through transfers rather than tax increases. If so, we must fight it.
Why is free education for the poor inadequate? Here are some reasons: (a) the current NSFAS model which is supposedly “free education for the poor” is actually not free: it is a loan, which needs to be repaid despite the majority of NSFAS recipients failing; (b) Many universities don’t have a large population of rich students like UCT to increase quality, (c) The burden remains on the disadvantaged students, e.g. unobservable financial needs, or any exclusion due to administrative errors, (d) poor students are not charity cases that must be paid for by rich students – the state must take direct responsibility for their continued exclusion.
Finally, where else is there free education? Of course, many advanced economies like Germany, Norway and Sweden offer free university education. Countries more comparable to us with free education include many Latin American countries like Brazil. I attended a talk by a student of Argentina’s University of Buenos Aires, which is ranked similarly to UCT, yet has free education with a completely different structure hinting towards decolonisation: over 300 000 students are enrolled, and there is a sense of collective responsibility that allows the university to perform highly despite underfunding. Free decolonised education is possible, and necessary.
At this point, some of you may still be wondering what decolonisation is. There is plenty of literature, and we must make time to read. Here’s what decolonisation means to me. Fundamentally, it is a process and a dream. It envisions a future where class, race, sex,, sexuality, disability, nationality and all differentiators cease to affect social relations. Past and current structural injustices are recognised as violence. The everyday experiences of the working class are centred and struggles are connected across the world. “The last shall be first and the first last.”
To me, it is more a recognition of the current violence in society, that even our psyches remain colonised. To give a concrete example, we have to undo the knowledge system that says Islam is foreign to Africa. Indeed, before Islam took hold in Madina, it had arrived in Africa via what is today called Ethiopia. To decolonise is to make the historic connections that colonialism separates.
Many of us are afraid that the system is burning. The prospect of losing an academic year is scary. However, we must not downplay the significance of this moment. How it could inspire future generations, what an end to financial exclusion in universities means.
With such high costs, there is a duty on us to use this time. I implore you that this applies to all of us. This is not a university issue – decolonisation is about society. The midterm budget is being presented next Wednesday, the 26th of October. Students have called on communities to march on Parliament. Take off work. Organise, struggle. This dream is urgent.