0% and the rise of leaderless movements: iLIVE - Times LIVE
Mon May 22 19:26:23 SAST 2017

0% and the rise of leaderless movements: iLIVE

Mathieu Dasnois | 2015-11-02 13:50:51.0
Students protest at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. File photo
Image by: Sizwe Ndingane

In the past few weeks, South Africa has seen unprecedented protests. Students have marched on the Union Buildings, Luthuli House and Parliament consecutive; protests have touched almost every major city in the country.

Students united, calling for reduced university fees. Government, university and SRC leadership met on Friday, October 23, ignoring leaderless movements, and agreed to a 0% increase, but it is not clear what the long-term cost of that settlement will be, or whether the poor would truly benefit.

As one student tweeted after the presidential address on Friday, “does this mean we will have to do this every year?” Government has a role to play to alleviate these fears, to make this victory tangible and long-term, and that role includes more than vague calls for help from the private sector.

Blade Nzimande even suggested in Parliament that perhaps universities should examine the prudency of their spending, a suggestion the Auditor-General and Public Protector have both made to the government. 

Hence questions of increased spending on tertiary education must, by necessity, address issues of primary and secondary education, prioritisation, and policy, which the government has studiously avoided. Gwede Mantashe performed a very adroit sidestep outside Luthuli House by attempting to move the ANC away from the proverbial target, and behind the barricades.

Yet the students did not accept the ruling party’s attempts to shift the blame back onto institutions, any more than they accepted opposition parties putting the blame squarely on the ANC and co-opt the #FeesMustFall movement into #ANCMustFall. Both attempts betray a lack of understanding of leaderless movements: the assumption that the masses are led, and can be co-opted by a different leader through emotional political rhetoric.

There is a growing trend in South Africa: a rejection, not of politics or particular leaders, but of leadership in general. This is particularly notable among those who feel excluded, but it is not an entirely new idea. In 1991-1994, when a popular movement entered an elective system, compromises were made which are still hotly debated two decades later.

The Unemployed People’s Movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Social Justice Coalition have  responded with ‘dialectic democracy’, decision-making through dialogue,  an idea reminiscent of the Area Committees in the anti-Apartheid days.  Nevertheless, even these movements tend to have some structure and/or spokespeople. Now, mass movements of self-mobilising students have made a demand, not through elected leaders or representatives, but en masse.

Leaderless movements refused to engage with the highest office in the country, that of the president, unless the engagement happened publicly. The President had a closed meeting with representatives of students and universities and announced an agreement on national television while the police dispersed the protesters in front of the Union Buildings with rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas.

 States around the world have shown a predisposition to engage other representative systems, miniature electorates. Perhaps it is time to realise that leaderless mass movements are more organised and more responsive now than ever before, and they are here to stay. Gil Scott-Heron sang that “the revolution will not be televised”, to which modern commentators often add “but it will be tweeted”. The speed of information has changed the political landscape.

Loose ideological agreements between students became coordinated national protests in a matter of days. The organisational ability of modern students effectively replaces traditional power structures. Who needs a communications department when students can put an excel sheet on google docs where anyone in the country can ask for airtime, with their phone number, and anyone in the country can respond? Why would they need a support structure when students can organise their own food, their own transport, even their own medical teams and legal aid?

And yet, the notion of a homogeneous student body is already starting to crack. Rumours of misconduct of the Wits SRC are floating on Twitter. UCT’s students disagreed over how to treat Max Price on Friday. There are reports in East London and Gauteng of students intimidating students. A mass movement will struggle to articulate a single clear blueprint of demands, desires and goals as well as a roadmap of how to get there.

What a mass movement does express very well is emotion. In this case, anger. Perhaps that is why the state prefers to deal with individual representatives. In a small meeting, it is possible to demand that participants articulate a clear goal as well as a plausible route to that goal. It is easier to disagree with delicate details than broad ideas, to say that it is ‘not workable’ and force a compromise.

Perhaps that was the limitation of CODESA in 1991, the legal assumption of a mandate given to representatives of mass movements, the lack of a legal structure to engage with leaderless entities, and the lack of a communications infrastructure which would allow mass movements to coordinate and react rapidly. Instead of demanding that students elect representatives to negotiate on their behalf, it behoves us to hear that anger and to engage with it.

The onus of how to bring about free and equal education should not rest entirely on the students. It is up to us as a nation of leaderless individuals to have a dialogue on how we want our education sector to be run and managed, which compromises we are willing to accept, and how the burden should be divided between the private sector, the state and the individual.

The students have opened the floor, but as an OpenStellenbosch representative mentioned during the Ashley Kriel lecture, they are acutely aware that students are only 0.5% of the population. Ultimately,  students will need broader public support to achieve a sustainable victory. The most successful protests of the past few decades (in terms of impact alone) were a combination of students and workers (Paris, 1968), youth and political activists (Egypt, 2011) and new student-led forms of protest (the Occupy movement started at the University of California).

There is a danger that when students go back to studying for their exams, when the street actions stop, the discussion may lose momentum. We as a society have to take it further, through dialogue and by keeping a critical issue front and centre. Today’s student movement has shown itself to be extremely adept at self-mobilisation. It is time to add our own leaderless mass in support of their organisational efforts. The students have shown us the way, but they cannot do this alone.

  • Mathieu Dasnois works as a Communications Assistant at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation


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