Protest Watch

Student protest to continue and “dark forces” return

Nzimande’s success claim hollow
Nzimande.jpg

All the signs are there that unrest at university campuses will continue on the back of impossible demands and that government will blame “dark external forces” bent on “regime change” in South Africa.

By the end of last week, it was clear that Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande’s claim earlier in the week that we “are confident that many of these issues (discussed by him and student leaders at a meeting) will be able to find one another” (sic), was way off the mark and tantamount to whistling in the dark.

By Friday three Gauteng-based universities, Witwatersrand (Wits), Pretoria (UP) and the University of South Africa (Unisa), had each found it necessary to obtain court interdicts to stop the protests that hampered registration for the 2016 academic year.

Only in the case of Unisa a specific organisation, the Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command (EFFSC), was specifically named. In the case of Wits six individuals were specifically named and seventh “respondent” described as “participants in protest action engaged in unlawful activities”. The respondents in the case of the UP were not known at the time of writing.

This illustrates how the situation with the ongoing disruptive, and sometimes violent, protests at South African university campuses has become extremely complex and cannot be pinned on any single organisation or a few individuals.

It is probably driven by a widespread feeling of frustration and powerlessness over their future by large swaths of young people in the country. This feeling is fed by fears of and the reality of a crippled economy, high levels of unemployment and anger over the non-realisation of expectations created by past promises of government and political leaders.

The protest can clearly no longer be described as spontaneous. A phalanx of individuals and less-than-formally-constituted organisations are popping up all over the place on an almost daily basis to claim ‘leadership’ of protests or on specific issues or self-created slogans.

Social media’s role

The explosion of the internet-based instant communication platforms, created by what is generally called ‘the social media’, plays a crucial role. One report last week said about the ‘protest movement’; that it “has transformed into a more sophisticated, organised system – thanks to WhatsApp and the ability to send instant messages to groups of people”.

Many of these groups, however, in the first instance only exist on these ‘social platforms’. Even leadership cadres often know one another in the traditional sense of the word – never having met one another in the flesh.

The experience in the recent weeks proved how ill-equipped traditional structures (from government and student representative councils to other formally constituted interest groups) with which society manages its affairs are to deal with this new phenomenon.

Last week Minister Nzimande thought he was meeting with the ‘legitimate’ leaders of students from campuses across the country to deal with a well-defined package of demands. The next moment it all fell apart when at least half of what was thought to be the real, democratically elected, student ‘leaders’ walked out of the meeting.

Afterwards it was not clear if those who walked out were representing an SRC or one of a number of so-called #Must Fall-banner movements. And a few variations of the list of demands also surfaced in news reports about the event.

Dark forces

It became clear that the Nzimande meeting, the announcement of a commission of enquiry into higher education and other official statements, promises and interventions were failing to give government a handle on the problem of student protest. In fact, it is totally losing control of the situation. With that came a signal that it will soon fall back on an old diversion tactic: blame it on external ‘dark forces’.

The governing alliance substructure, the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) consisting of the ANC Youth League, Young Communist League and South African Student Congress (SASCO, YCLSA and ANCL), issued a statement calling on students to end their protests. In this statement, among others, PYA refers to “dark forces, particularly the elements who want to use this protest as ground for regime change”.

In what is reminiscent of a campaign last year to smear opponents and critics of government by the State security Agency of South Africa (SSASA), the statement rolls out a now familiar conspiracy theory, stating: “It is therefore not surprising to see all BRICS countries have economic problems at the scale they are having them. We know that their agenda is sinister in nature and they don’t have the interests of students at heart.”

And, in what has also become a regular feature of responses to self-made crises, they claim a role by the American intelligence agency, the CIA, stating: “We are aware that there are some who have been trained by the CIA to lay a fertile ground for the regime change in South Africa. These forces are led by a belief that the economic shift from the West to the East create a danger for them.”

Such responses betray an inability to come to grips with a much more complicated situation demanding holistic, sophisticated and well-thought out and implemented. responses.

Unrealistic demands

At the same time some of the demands coming from the protests also expose the weaknesses of the social media as an organisational platform. Top of these weaknesses is probably the lack of thorough debate and careful consideration of responses to issues.

This is probably best illustrated by one of the demands that surfaced last week, namely: “No police or private security presence on campus.”

Clearly the formulator/s of that demand have not thought through the implications of such an arrangement. For one, there is the danger of turning campuses into prime targets for criminal elements in society.

Conclusion

The situation surrounding student protests has become a serious security threat and a threat to social stability in the country and the nation is in for a rough ride on that front in the months to come.

It has become time for some deep and collective thinking by the leadership of all of society’s formations of how the challenge we face can and should be met. It is not going to be easy, especially during an election year with its temptations to try and score easy points.

Fact is, as a nation we are in deep trouble if we do not succeed in coming to grips with the problem.

by Piet Coetzer

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