What #FeesMustFall Has Taught Us About South Africa’s Political Future

Written by: Grant Penny The year of #FeesMustFall, #RhodesMustFall, along with outsourcing protests and calls for a more inclusive Stellenbosch University, seem to be indicative of a broader disgruntlement from a new, middle class space in our society. However refreshing it might be to see...

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Written by: Grant Penny

The year of #FeesMustFall, #RhodesMustFall, along with outsourcing protests and calls for a more inclusive Stellenbosch University, seem to be indicative of a broader disgruntlement from a new, middle class space in our society. However refreshing it might be to see middle class kids, both black and white, standing together against the government, one must ask how these protests differ from the rest – and I argue that they are not and follow much of the same false logic behind the faith placed in the state. The over-quoted adage from Einstein that defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results rings patently true.

Only the government can fix what it broke

The support-anger cycle that citizens have with the government in South Africa is a perplexing relationship. We are not surprised when things do not work, or stop working altogether, yet cheer on the government for showing signs of progress when the odd drop of good news drips through the trough. Unfortunately, much of this good news stems from new endeavours rather than fixing the broken, testament to the reality that politicians love nothing more than cutting new tape – a shiny new bridge carries more clout than fixing an old one. Evidence points towards the new universities recently opened, shiny and new, rather empty, built while UKZN, TUT, and others fall into cycles of protests, corruption, and general mismanagement, often over NSFAS funding.

Politics is a reflection of any human behaviour, being that regardless of us being conscious of it or not, we are all running a cost-benefits analysis in our heads for our potential actions. The ANC executive would have debated, run the logic, compared worse-case scenarios, and ultimately come up with a solution. That solution, ‘give in’ to a 0% increase. This decision was utterly unsurprising. It results in universities being able to continue as per usual (at least in the short run), it doesn’t ruffle too many feathers from the elite who are sending their children to the universities, and it makes Zuma look like he cares. To put it frankly, any other solution would have had less favourable outcomes.

The opposition parties were bursting to get in on the action, especially as ANC-angered young black voters are exactly what every party is in short supply of. Maimane arriving at UCT; Shivambu trying to eke out a presence at Parliament; and even Helen Zille coming back from the political retirement-home to have some one-on-one time in Stellenbosch. The desperation could also be attributed to the fractioning within the Tripartite Alliance, and national support for the Zuma being significantly lower than his in-party support. Using the students for political leverage might just, and could still, provide a knockout blow to the ANC in the next election. The effect of which, frankly, is far less promising for the future of South Africa when one considers the political stance all parties took in this time.

In this battle to capture more votes, each and every political party sitting in Parliament did nothing but support the student’s struggle, not only for reduced fees, but the removal of them altogether. The problem of commitment to handing out more free stuff, is that it is near impossible to retract from or alter later on. In other words, what we have witnessed out of these protests is a political commitment from the DA, the EFF, the IFP, COPE, and more, to more social welfare – a decent whack to the left across the political spectrum. All the while the wealth-tax proposal re-emerged from Luthuli House, with a fresh confidence that no political party could stand in its way. At this point anyone voting in the 2016 elections should no longer concern him/herself over party ideologies. Whether they appear left, right, or down the middle, just one hashtag has made everyone turn left in response to public demand.

Demands without solutions

Emotions can cause almost any reaction, and justify almost any cause. When you are so angered by your feeling of cultural exclusion from an institution, you can begin to hate it, to wish ill on it, and take your anger out towards it. It is without doubt that many UCT students felt such emotions towards, for example, the Rhodes statue, as it came to symbolise their detachment from where they felt they belonged, and captured the lack of direction and leadership in South Africa.

With all of this comes a sense of entitlement. A belief that I have a right to my way, and others do not. These demands are made despite these very students being at the top of the academic and privilege pile in South Africa. What is worse is that there has been no plan provided by the students to solve the issues – meaning little thought was given to a solution, and no realistic or consideration or demand for any trade-offs were made. Underlying such strategy-less demands is the unwritten belief that the government will do the planning part, and we will be satisfied with the result – a nod to a public acceptance of more government control.

Protesting without a plan is not going to solve anything, and paints a grim future if the soon-to-be leaders of our country, packed with brains from all disciplines, could not provide one valid means of obtaining their goals, other than through demands and destruction. The fact that these students were endorsed for their actions; for disobedience, vandalism, and occasional acts of racism, reflects an unthinking, emotionally-charged majority, that will fall back on the government for answers.

The alternative is that the student do have a solution, arguably the only long-term sustainable solution, and that is to create a growing economy where the tax base can support the 16 million plus living on social grants. Simultaneously this has occurred while increasing government expenditure outstrips tax revenue, supported by dramatically increased borrowing that is expected to reach R153 billion by 2018. This is, of course, not nearly as palatable a solution as ‘the government must provide more money for us’, from where, or from whom, remaining undefined.

Individual responsibility seems to be removed from all realms of possible solutions in South Africa. The fall-back on the state represents content with nanny-ism and others defining your path. South Africans need to break away from this cycle of dependency. The alternatives will not be as easy to swallow, but when economic and political performance is at its lowest since the fall of apartheid, solutions are required that go beyond the emotional. If South Africans do not step up to take responsibility for their own lives, creating their own future in spite of government incompetence, we will see no change in the course for this country’s future. Government will get larger, and liberties will face their demise in the hands of rulers.

Author: Grant Penny is a politics graduate from the University of Cape Town and a former candidate with the Cape Party. He currently resides in Japan.

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