Working-class perspectives have been absent from the conversation, writes Zuko Godlimpi.
Johanneburg – In the past 10 years, many discourses have been radical in their questioning of established views.They have ranged from reintroducing taboos such as nationalisation into economic policy debates, rethinking our theory of race relations, and renegotiating sexual identities and notions of power that connect all of these.
The #FeesMustFall events have revisited many of these dogmas.
They have challenged not only symbols of colonial heritage, but the patriarchal power structures of the revolutionary movements that sought to redefine universities and society.What has been missing is a class critique of the tendency of this radicalism to be driven by urban experiences to the exclusion of black working class narratives.
The ideological and organisational weaknesses of this movement’s spokespeople and the urban bias in media reporting are responsible for this.
Since this radicalism emerged from the black urban strata at formerly white universities there have been shifting moral perspectives on historically condemned forms of protest.
These include violent protest as a type of dialogue with power that has long been present in townships and on black campuses.
The condemnation didn’t excuse even symbolic gestures of violence, such as the burning of tyres at university entrances.
There was a stated ideological sensitivity that drew the line at burning university infrastructure like libraries and lecture halls.
Retorts such as “their violence is undermining their cause” have played like a stuck record across the media.
This shows how public morality and political sensibilities exude an urban bias.
The anxieties of urban social classes and their chosen forms of expression constitute what is considered legitimate political discourse and moral correctness.
This is particularly instructive in the light of the tendency for media opinion to be represented as “public opinion”.
By historical design the colonial metropoles, established in the Western Cape and the Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging urban centres, conditioned the mainstream political culture and what became accepted concepts of public morality.
The megaphone of established media and social media is attuned to the political anxieties and sensib-ilities of metropolitan social classes.
The emerging black middle class has been largely structured around assimilation into the white colonial metropole.
Since 1994, it has sought to amass assets similar to its white counterpart and has had a tendency to perfect, other than challenge and renegotiate, the social values and political sensibilities of the metropole.
However, as soon as urban middle classes began to feel the pressure of the global economic crisis, especially in the post-2008 setting, the metropole has experienced a radicalisation of its unstable black middle class.
Deepening economic inequality and the rising cost of living have unravelled the facade of racial harmony in the metropole.
This has shifted the focus, at least in media conversations, to radical perspectives of racial wealth structures and public policy, such as on education.
However, these radical perspectives reflect an urban slant that the #FeesMustFall movement has magnified.
There has been a limited understanding or articulation of the transformation demands of poorer universities.
In its claim of representing “black pain”, the movement has robbed itself of the opportunity to build on the class-based differences that define blackness in the rural working class as compared with urban and affluent contexts.
Structural transformation questions in higher education go beyond fees.
For a start, there are funding disparities between historically white and black universities.
Since white universities have a high rate of graduates, on account of their historical privilege, they continue to receive higher funding.
The urban radicals seem to have no regard for this!
There has been no articulation of matters that constitute the strategic battles of historically black campuses – such as the recapitalisation of academic infrastructure, the standardisation of fees, the burgeoning of university bureaucracy and the shrinking academy.
The debate about regulating and balancing institutional autonomy with academic freedom needs to be placed back at the centre.
This is critical to finding a workable model for regulating fees without sabotaging governance and he generation of knowledge.
These have been prominent radical working-class perspectives in the education debate for years, but they have been absent from the urban-led conversation.
The older student and youth movements’ proposition for a corporate and wealth tax is unevenly asserted and sometimes missing.
Instead, the liberal perspective of clean governance, action against corruption and less government interference in the economy are uniting uneasy bedfellows – the black middle class and white social classes – especially in media conversations.
Clean governance and action against corruption are important in themselves without being co-opted by class interests that oppose structural reform in our economic relations and tax regime.
The entire thing runs the risk of being an urban conspiracy that advances a radical liberalism that mobilises blackness with no meaningful commitment to structural change.
Its radicalism is limited to being anti-government. It is a bourgeois paternalism that mocks the lived experiences of working class black people to advance a dubious agenda.