First step on a long road – October 25, 2015

The victory of the #FeesMustFall movement in its struggle for a moratorium on fee increases is an important step in a long of struggle for justice in South Africa. As many students have said, this is part of a long struggle for free and quality education that began in 1976. Almost all the students who have participated in this momentous struggle are aware that big battles lie ahead. Notwithstanding these coming battles, this victory is important in various ways.

Firstly, for many students this was their first experience of sustained, militant and national struggle. Before the #FeesMustFall movement the talk was always of a generation that had no cause to struggle for. The majority of universities participated in the movement, and albeit in a limited way, the Class of 2015 has ‘lived to fulfil its mission’. Secondly, #FeesMustFall movement has led to important shifts in consciousness, and an entry of a generation into national political life. The long-term results of 23 October 2015 lie before us, but we can already say that the process of the formation of a cadre for the social justice movement has taken a giant step forward. Without such a cadre formed in struggle, the social justice movement will remain weak for long historical periods. Thirdly, social change demands that those involved in struggle must believe that the impossible can become possible. During the countdown to this victory this movement of October was being counselled from all sides that it will not achieve a moratorium on fee increases; it was told it was impossible to achieve this demand. With this victory, the Class of 2015 now know that revolutions are possible. Listening to a few of them interviewed after the historic retreat by the ANC government – they know that the next battles can be won. Fourthly, the Class of 2015 know that behind promises and lip-service to social justice in general and free education in particular, the ruling class is not committed to these ideals in practice. Big capital went missing, its ministers went missing, the president went missing; only the police were sent to attempt to crush the student struggle.

Students have compared the brutality and provocative behaviour of the police to Marikana. Like Marikana, instead of dialogue with the students, violence was the language the ruling class preferred.

This is not to say that this movement does not have major hurddles to overcome. As the students recognise, the Class of ‘15 is not only born-free, but is politically also newly-born. To begin with, the moratorium on free increases does not put money into the pockets of students who already do not afford high fees. With an economy in decline, many students’ economic situation continues to deteriorate. The cost of living will continue to rise, and for many students who could not afford a meal the situation has not changed on this front. The deal with the state and the Vice-Chancellors does not include a moratorium on financial exclusions. The exclusions in January will be based on fees not paid – even before 2016 fees become due. The #FeesMustFall movement must still confront and deal with the challenge of creating a sustained and politically coherent movement out of the many political currents in its ranks – some of which are still linked to the ruling elite. The challenge of struggle for free education will test the cohesion of this movement in ways the #FeesMustFall phase of this movement could not do.

Although there has been widespread public sympathy for #FeesMustFall, the young movement still faces the major challenge of not only consolidating, deepening and broadening this support; it also faces the more difficult political challenge of creating a whole network of alliances with other social movements and civil society organisations. Like the Class of ’76, the youth of October has to learn, quickly, that the battle they have embarked upon cannot be fought and won by them alone. They have to learn to swim among the masses like a fish in water.

Will #FeesMustFall be able to unite in the struggle against exclusions? This is not a question to be answered in the medium or long-term. Indeed, the ability of the Class of ‘15 to take up the struggle for free education will be tested in the next 3 months – when the campuses open in February 2016. If October is anything to go by, the Class of 2015 may still “live to fulfil its mission”.

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