A revolt by students in South Africa against a tuition fee rise has grown into an all-out fight for quality, free and decolonised education.
A radicalised group of students has led the Fees Must Fall (FMF) movement. They have been met with an increase ideological opposition and physical repression.
There is a concerted effort to present the students as a self-declared vanguard that threatens the hallowed halls of the university. Even some intellectuals, who have been proponents of decolonisation, bleat on about “the politics of the impossible demand”.
Some even claim that free education for all is anti-poor and anti-black because it provides a free ticket for the rich, who are usually white.
These one-time social democrats, some former militant socialists, have often become comfortable in new class positions. They have jettisoned social democracy for social liberalism.
FMF is a fightback against the twisted priorities of a political system that has led to an enormous export of profit.
Our detractors claim free education is not affordable. This is only true if you accept the reduction of corporate tax since the end of apartheid and fear the credit ratings agencies.
And we cannot ignore the social cost of excluding and marginalising so many young people outside and within the universities.
We stand firmly with the demands of the FMF and the strategy to shut down our universities. This is not because we are mindless militants, but because the student struggles are currently the sharp edge of a wedge into the neoliberal offensive.
Students have been a lightning rod for the working class since the late 1960s and much more frequently since the turn of the century. Austerity measures have undermined access for black and working class students through the user pay model.
These lessons of history are not lost on our ruling class, which fears that student struggles may encourage a wider uprising.
The neoliberal offensive was never limited to education. Social spending in general has been cut in real terms.
The state and the government are determined to push through the harshest austerity programme with the forthcoming the mid-term budget. They need to fend off any attempts to blunt their offensive. The new student movement presents a clear and present danger to this strategy.
This is why they are intent on crudely cutting off the heads of our new student movement. They are arbitrarily arresting the leadership and supporting universities when they suspend and expel militants.
In the course of this, hard-won democratic rights – such as the right to assemble and the right to protest – have been casually reversed.
We appeal to the student militants to keep the fight going – but if the fight is to survive, we have to extend it. We have to call on organised workers and trade unions to join us in open civil disobedience. We have to appeal to those supportive political and civil society formations to turn their moral support into concrete support.
Wider sections of society will need to get behind the student struggle before it is crushed, taking some of our basic rights down in the process.
As students our power is a potent spark. But it can be extinguished if we don’t campaign for real solidarity among those who have the power to bring the economy, and the entire rotten system, to its knees.