WSF (1996): “Tertiary Education: Struggle for Free and Democratic Education Continues”

WSF (1996): “Tertiary Education: Struggle for Free and Democratic Education Continues”

From Workers Solidarity, magazine of the Workers Solidarity Federation, volume 2, number 2, third quarter 1996. Complete PDF is here

During the first 6 months of this year we have seen students from all over the country take up the battle against their administrations.

Students at Pretoria Technikon, University of the Western Cape (UWC), and the University of Durban Westville (UDW) put up a spectacular fight against on going racism on campus, financial exclusions and increasing fees. At UDW students and workers also joined in protest against the unfair dismissal of workers. The highest point of the UDW struggle was when workers and students successfully expelled the university management and ran the university for 48 hours.

But every single one of these protests were met with extreme force by reactionary administrations. Police violence against protesting students was widespread at all three campuses; court interdicts were issued against students at UWC and UDW. At UDW the administration went so far as to lock out the entire student body and workforce in an attempt to undermine the protests.

The heavy handed actions against students and workers by the university management and government are part of a wider attack on the struggle for free and equal education for all.

A central part of the anti- apartheid struggle was the fight for free and equal education. In 1976 students fought and died for the right to a decent education for the poor. But now Education Minister Sibusiso Bengu argues that tertiary education is a privilege and not a right! He also said that tertiary education was not free and would never be.

This means that working- class and poor Black students are effectively excluded from higher education. These students can no longer keep up with ever increasing fees and either have to drop out or are excluded.

The government and the education minister say that there is no money for free education and that student must settle for what they get. This is nonsense: there is enough wealth in this country to give everyone a decent life.

Yet bursaries continue to be inadequate in terms of both numbers available, and value. Meanwhile the racist funding structure remains: historically white universities continue to receive far higher subsidies from the government than historically Black universities.

Historically SASCO (the South African Students Congress) has been in the forefront of student struggles. SASCO is the biggest student organisation.

But this year SASCO has been much less prominent. At Pretoria Technikon, the student protests were spearheaded by the Azanian Front- a coalition between smaller Black Consciousness and Africanist organisations. At UDW, a broad- based Students Representative Council (SRC), and a militant staff association, played the leading role. In both cases SASCO was often uncomfortable with the direction of the protests. Wits SASCO even refused to endorse a solidarity meeting called to support UDW.

Why? SASCO’s ability to consistently champion students demands is held back by their alliance with the ANC. SASCO has endorsed the government’s arguments against free education. They have been openly hostile to critics of the ANC’s policies. They have not taken a stand against the government’s threatened clamp down on militant student protest. [see appendix].

SASCO president, David Makuru said “We won’t toe the government line. Our duty as the student movement is to be critical of the government, including the one that we have elected.” So far, this critical attitude still remains to be proved by SASCO.

However, this does not mean that student must rely instead on the official SRC’s to fight for student demands. SRCs are not fighting bodies- they are bureaucratic structures integrated into the university administrations. They are therefore unable to consistently fight the university bosses.

Some say that we must wait for new administrations to be appointed to replace the Apartheid era management’s. However, where this has already happened (for example, the University of Cape Town) it has brought little real change. Changing a few faces at the top will not give workers and students a real say in the running of campuses. It will do nothing to challenge the structures of wealth distribution that determine how much funding is available or how decisions are made.

Instead of waiting for a new set of bosses to do things for us, we need to keep up the struggle on the ground. Instead of rule by a managerial elite, we need real worker -student-staff control over these institutions. Instead of universities that train a set of privileged experts and managers to help run capitalism and the state, we need tertiary education that serves the needs of the workers and the poor.

It is time for a new strategy. In place of student bodies tied to political parties, and in place of the bureaucratic SRCs, we call on progressive student forces to form a real Student Union. This union should be based on the principles of direct democracy and be committed to winning free and democratic education for all. Obviously different political tendencies would exist within the union. Any attempt to establish a bureaucracy of full- time paid officials must be opposed.

The Student Union would have to build alliances with the workers and the staff on campus. We, as students, cannot win our demands in isolation. We need allies in the working-class who have the power to change society from the bottom up. These alliances would only be possible if students are genuinely committed to the struggle of the working class.

We must realise we cannot win if we do not challenge the broader structures of resource allocation in society which determine how much funding is available. So, the student struggle must be linked to the broader social struggle for a free and equal society. It must be linked to the struggles of the workers and the poor against the bosses and the rulers. In the long run, the Student Union and its worker allies would lay the basis for free, democratic and equal education for all.


Appendix: The Two Faces of the Government

At a June 16th rally President Mandela stated: “Never again shall state guns be turned on the youth and anyone else simply because they want a better education and a better life.”

But three days before, after a meeting with all university and technikon principles, he announced that police will again be allowed on campuses to stop unrest. President Mandela also condemned legitimate forms of protest used by students. He said that occupations, class disruptions, and the littering of campuses, would not be tolerated. “Student trouble- makers” were also condemned.

Is this the beginning of a government clamp down on student protests? Is there a chance that we might see another June 16 in the future? Will students be shot down for demanding free and democratic education for all?