Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Students and the working class: towards a living solidarity

Benjamin Fogel, Amandla Magazine

Grahamstown, small and dusty and nestled in the centre of the Eastern Cape, is a microcosm of contemporary South Africa and its social problems. Hovering at around 70%, unemployment is high, inequality vast and the city racially structured along a highly visible apartheid-like geography. A corrupt and inefficient local government presides. Only a few kilometres away from the Grahamstown of arts festivals, cathedrals and Rhodes University lies an altogether different world: the townships of Joza, Sun City, Phampamani and others, where the majority of the town’s inhabitants live. Seventeen years into ANC rule, most of these townships still do not have access to water and electricity, the waiting list for housing sits at more than 20 000 and the bucket system is still prevalent.

The interaction of students with the other side of Grahamstown is generally confined to either budding journalists commanded to ‘go find stories in the township’, or post-graduates conducting research for their theses. Students exploit the impoverished conditions of the poor as exciting opportunities for news articles but are seldom seen after the stories are published.

As life for Rhodes students carries on in much the same way, the poor majority of Grahamstown have begun to reject the false allegiances of local government to support the struggle as a distraction for their inefficiency and corruption. According to Grocott’s Mail, R53.7 million of Makana Municipality’s R69.6 million budget went unspent in the last year [1]. Officials rather pathetically blamed ‘red tape’ for their inability to perform basic functions of government. Yet somehow they managed to spend R250 000 to award President Zuma the key to the city.[2]

Over the last few years we have seen the refusal of thousands across the country to sit back and wait passively for ‘service delivery’; citizens from Cape Town to Durban have taken to the streets to demand dignity and their constitutional rights. This rebellion of the poor has come to Grahamstown in the form of the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM). In response to the increasingly visible struggle in Grahamstown, a new student organisation, the Students for Social Justice (SSJ), has begun to take up the task of bridging the gulf between town and gown. This has taken the form of an active solidarity and partnership with the UPM.

A march in February this year, which followed the rape and murder of recently matriculated student Zingiswa Centwa, who was attacked as she walked to one of the few toilets in her community, was a catalyst for heightened resistance by the poor. Zingiswa’s was one of many rapes in which women walking to the toilet at night (there are no streetlights in most of the townships) are attacked. The UPM and the Women’s Social Forum (WSF) organised this march to protest against the rapes and the municipality’s response to them, as well as the issue of lighting in the township. Several UPM activists occupied the offices of the Makana Municipality demanding to see the mayor, before the protest was forcefully dispersed by police. Angry citizens then blockaded and dug up newly built roads in Phampamani, burning tyres and demanding to know why a road was built when none of the residents own cars. According to a UPM press statement, ‘People never wanted the tar roads. They wanted houses, electricity, toilets, water and jobs.’[3] General Cele’s finest reacted to the people’s demands with pepper spray and rubber bullets. Responding to reports of the violence, the UPM leadership was arrested at the scene of a protest and charged with ‘public violence’, compounded by exceedingly harsh bail conditions (these charges have subsequently been dropped).

News of this repression and the ongoing struggles of the community prompted several students to form a solidarity committee at Rhodes University. Out of this anger with local government, Students for Social Justice (SSJ) was born. SSJ was immediately confronted with several challenges, such as widespread political apathy among students and the disconnection between life at one of South Africa’s leading universities and the conditions of the rest of Grahamstown. Despite its reputation for having a progressive student body, Rhodes has a notably depoliticised campus. Poor election turnouts, apathetic political formations and lack of organised student activism, outside of specific issues such as HIV/Aids, LGBTI rights and animal Rights, characterise the university’s community engagement. Some fail entirely to engage with the reality of Grahamstown beyond the Rhodes campus. Various individual students have previously had working relationships with the UPM, but Rhodes’s various student formations have yet to seek to build such a partnership or living solidarity with the social movement.

This partnership has not been a static or fixed thing and has evolved with the challenges facing the UPM in Grahamstown. It has taken on several forms ranging from helping UPM activists to use the infrastructure provided to Rhodes students, to helping to arrange transport on short notice (there is almost no public transport system in Grahamstown). At the core of this living solidarity is essentially an admission of ignorance on behalf of SSJ. Members of the SSJ can’t begin to understand the lived reality of being poor and unemployed or seek to force its theories and politics on existing social movements. The SSJ has attempted to take the back seat to the UPM and work with them as the lesser partners. In this way it has tried to steer between some of the traps associated with student activism – quasi-philanthropic ‘NGOification’ on the one hand, and the failed vanguardism of the ‘official’ left on the other.

Attempting to mobilsze students to engage in progressive politics has perhaps proved to be the defining challenge for SSJ. The reasons for widespread political apathy amongs students are complex and campus specific, ranging from the interim nature of a student population to the failure of institutionalised political forces to organise in a compelling and appealing fashion. All too often, banal clichés about today’s youth’s congenital apathy, crass materialism and general bad nature are thrown around without any attempt to engage the youth in any sustained manner. It says a lot about the state of our politics that the only public figure in South Africa that can reasonably claim to be seriously engaging with the youth is Julius Malema. Two points here are crucial for future student radical organising: firstly, the manner in which activism and politics in general is communicated needs revision. Too often the left makes the mistake of dwelling on its failures and major challenges. Its presentation becomes infused with despair and hopelessness and the message becomes one of sacrifice and hardship. Students are not attracted to such a depressing message – the left needs to emphasise both its victories and the creativity and fun that can define much activism. Secondly, there exists a space on campuses for progressive student activism outside both the ‘official’ left, represented by the Progressive Youth Alliance, and the important single issue activism.

The UPM’s struggles have really come into public awareness this year and SSJ has played a part in some of the more important moments in this. Earlier this year, the UPM organised a protest, covered by the SABC programme Cutting Edge, against the bucket system which is what passes for ‘sanitation’ in Grahamstown. The culmination of the protest involved UPM members carrying full buckets from the townships and dumping human waste on the steps of the municipal offices. The SSJ’s role in this was mainly to explain the laws regarding protests (with which UPM had complied) and how the police, commanded by the municipality, shut it down, along with a Rhodes academic. The reaction to the documentary from the ANC was hostile, to the extent that an attempt was made to bring about legal action against the producers of the DVD.

SSJ with the UPM further endorsed and helped organise the campaign of an independent candidate in the recent municipal elections. Rhodes PhD student Christopher McMichael ultimately ended up finishing a mere eight votes behind the ANC’s selected cadre.

SSJ and the UPM have attempted to build the type of living solidarity in which students can engage in a meaningful and democratic fashion with members of social movements – a praxis we hope to see develop across other South African campuses. This type of living solidarity is crucial to building a new progressive alternative to combat the challenges facing South Africa.

Benjamin Fogel is a politics student at Rhodes University and a founding member of SSJ. His interests include the politics of social movements, Marxism, and Zille’s dancing style.

[1] ‘Makana had R53.7m and didn’t spend it’, available at http://www.grocotts.co.za/content/makana-had-r537m-and-didnt-spend-it-15-04-2011

[2] ‘Open Letter to President Zuma from The Unemployed People’s Movement, Grahamstown’, available at http://amandlapublishers.co.za/home-page/528-open-letter-to-president-zuma-from-the-unemployed-peoples-movement-grahamstown

[3] ‘The Rebellion of the Poor Comes to Grahamstown’, available at http://democraticleft.za.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=82:the-rebellion-of-the-poor-comes-to-grahamstow&catid=34:articles&Itemid=59