At the heart of the student protests across South Africa is the immediate question of the right to learn. In choosing to adopt tactics that have forced institutions to shut down and preventing learning from happening in its usual ways, protesting students have come under fire for interfering in the lives of those who choose not to participate in campaigns that are said to affect ‘a minority’; and in the usual sensational style of the mainstream media, student actions have been characterised as “violent”.
However, such a narrow approach fails to capture the deeper ideological nuances presented unambiguously by students and ignored almost completely by the university colonial matrices of power and, writ large, the South African Students Congress ideological character- namely Marxist-Leninism as a tool of analysis.
A correct appreciation of the student’s agency should be understood as a call for free education which is twofold:
In short, on the one hand, the call for free education represents, from a class perspective, a fee-structure demand which seeks to argue that education in a highly industrialized world at large is a necessity without which one cannot survive- particularly the poor; and on the other hand, arriving from the question of alienation, the decolonial approach, wherein the call for free education pierces internally into nature of the university and the kind of knowledge it produces.
Notwithstanding the state has satisfied the demand in so far as the former is concerned, which as an organization we have been quick to defend, comprising of technical solutions which do not delve deeper into the struggle against coloniality and matrices of power, and how that relates to the perpetuation of inequality- a result being the colonial perpetuation of universities in Africa which are not African universities (an unfortunate trajectory which SASCO’s current ideological outlook cannot adequately respond to)
What has remained neglected, in the main, is the interrogation of the structural and epistemological foundations from which these student protests stem and what they seek to bring about; namely, a new reality and understanding of the current student political imaginary- an existential reality encompassing ‘race’ as the categorical antagonism of our higher education climate and social experience.
Taken this way, SASCO’s Marxist-Leninist tool of analysis cannot be the primary lens for redemption and discourse. Our habitual error of looking at developments in isolation and responding with an ‘umbrella’ approach can perhaps account for the dismal ability to take charge and lead the narrative of some of the institution it lives to defend. The above point is not a result of incapacity, but rather of negligent ideological gatekeeping of a special type which has come to characterize SASCO’s discussions on the matter.
Having said that, the words of Friedrich Nietzsche (1881) come to the fore wherein he argues that “the surest way to corrupt the youth is to instruct [it] to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently”. Taking lead from the above words, it is the ambition of this article position the argument differently in an attempt to challenge the ideological gatekeeping mentioned above.
The challenge put forward is, in the main, a charge on SASCO’s Marxist-Leninist tool of analysis as having inadequacies to respond to the current student political climate. That all societies are essentially class societies is not a matter of immense debate. However, some societies are more of a racialized society than class society, which is something that the class position misses completely in that Marxist-Leninism metaphysically privilege European modernity by obliterating the specificity and the particularity of the African in the name of universalistic scientism (Serequebherhan: 2012)
Central to the point above is to understand the construction of knowledge and thus of ideology. Knowledge is always linked to power and as such is constructed within the ontological geo-political culture in question. This means that the production of knowledge is inseparably linked to the structural and epistemological foundations of society. In other words, if a particular group has declared itself as the highest order and supreme being, and anything else subhuman and primitive, then any knowledge that the supreme order produces will seek to bring into existence this belief and moreover preserve a system of rigid oppression reinforced through its social institutions.
Linking this understanding to the problematic nuances of Marxist-Leninism as a school of thought is to argue that Marxist-Leninism universalizes, from a historico-cultural specificity that places Europeans on a pedestal, the metaphysics of European modernity and its ontological assumptions (read racist, patriarchal, Christian-centric, heteronormative, capitalist, colonial etc.) which has been characterized as ALL points of rejection by student politics today.
Put this way, one cannot ignore geo-politics as easily as they would like as it is the very foundation in which a decolonial critique on SASCO’s ideological posturing and Eurocentric umbilical cord stems. Now the critique on Marxism as Eurocentric issue is that it accentuates class over race and by so doing ignores its ontological assumptions in the name of universalist scientism (understood to be a distinct feature of European modernity).
As such, to charge SASCO’s ideological outlook as a common leap of ignorance in the name of scientific universality disguised by ‘Marxist-Leninist tools of analysis’ (and its ideological limitations and concerns) is crucial to understanding our current political climate. Equally, understanding this point above is critical in understanding the idea of knowledge and ideological outlook.
In short, knowledge is always linked to power and as such is constructed within the geo-political culture in question. This means that the production of knowledge is inseparably linked to the structural and epistemological foundations of society (Mignolo: 2003) As such, SASCO cannot afford to ignore geo-politics as some of its leaders attempt, as it is the very foundation in which Marxism is built upon.
Anyone who takes the time to listen closely to what student activists today are saying (particularly those students confronted with the question of alienation in Historically white/Afrikaner institutions- the same institutions where SASCO continues to have limited influence), will understand that the struggle for free education is imagined as part of a much bigger struggle against a system that they characterise as violent and speak of as experiencing in violent forms in their everyday lives.
This has been a recurring argument in the student protests of 2015 manifesting in the likes of #RhodesMustFall, #OpenStellies, #RhodesSoWhite #TuksSoWhite #AfrikaansMustFall #OpenStellies #OpenPukke #FeesMustFall; and in the same breadth has been a recurring challenge of SASCO’s inability to take charge of the narrative.
In being able to respond to the point of alienation which students have articulated, SASCO ought to adopt an ideological outlook that analyses coloniality as the primary concern of our immediate reality.
Decolonialism is often a topic which brings much anxiety to the current configuration of SASCO and, more often than not, is met with great repression- this absurd anxiety and repression is perhaps due to the new culture of reluctance to read and allow for fruitful contestation of ideas. In fact, decoloniality as an idea need not be a new idea in the student movement for anyone who has delved into the archives of SASCO’s organizational and ideological outlook.
The 1969 black consciousness breakaway from NUSAS lead by the likes of, amongst others, Steve Biko and Patrick Lekota (the same Lekota who has seemingly lost touch of his ideological character today) to form SASO captured the sentiments above. Those activists used a form of decolonial theory, understood as black consciousness, to respond to the student political climate which encompassed race as the categorical antagonism of their political reality. It is this revolutionary discourse which lead to the events of the 1976 Soweto Uprising on June 16 and is arguably the same prevalent ideological discourse of today’s student political reality.
Notwithstanding, the liberal approach of non-racialism which led to the merger of SANSCO and NUSAS in 1991 to form the South African Students Congress (SASCO) can perhaps account for our current ideological outlook of instrumentalism made even worse by the adoption of Marxist-Leninist as the sole ideological influence. Today, SASCO’s declining electoral support (Particularly in historically white/advantaged institutions) stems largely from this ideological rigidness; and in the same breadth it is comrades who come from these institutions who find the least expression in SASCO today and who experience the most repression in leadership, resulting in breakaways in the name of Fallism.
In trying to reposition SASCO as the first choice for students in all institutions of higher learning should begin my appreciating that the ‘fallism’ 2015 student protests succeeded in putting on the national agenda once again the important question of what a public university in Africa today should be, the values it should uphold, the kind of education it delivers, and the kinds of knowledge it produces.
That being said, a proper diagnosis would require us to accept that while the issue of fees increases might be resolved in the immediate term, the current student political reality requires of us as an organization to create a conducive space to reopen an ideological debate which has been compromised given our dogmatic appeal to instrumentalism- and which in turn enabled a series of technocratic interventions to dominate the discussions about and approaches to the student political imaginary.
Such a debate compels us to place decolonialism in a dialectical relationship (qua) conversation with Marxism-Leninism to try and liberate Marxism-Leninism from racist Eurocentric interlocutors who have used Marxism-Leninism to defend and disseminate racist views in revolutionary discourses and literature- any failure to grasp that, misses the point all together.
Although such a space is yet to be constituted, its imagination would be an ideological ‘triumvirate’ of Marxism, Leninism and Decolonialism dialectically as a struggle against the interconnected problematic(s) of first and foremost ‘race’ and ‘racism’ using decolonialism; ‘capitalism’ and ‘class exploitation’ through Marxism’s critique of capital; and using Lenin’s ideas against reactionary state apparatus (Gladile: 2018).
These ideas need not be viewed in a hierarchical fashion but should rather be understood as three equally important moments that constitutes a composite whole; and any failure to grasp that misses the point all together.
Written by Thabo Shingange
Thabo Shingange is a member of SASCO at the University of Pretoria and former RTT member of SASCO Greater Tshwane; He writes in his personal capacity.
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Mignolo. W. D. 2009. Epistemic disobedience, independent thought and de-colonial freedom. Theory, culture and society. 26 (7-8). Pp 1-23
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