In the academic year 2015, 10% of South African undergraduates were excluded from further studies. 45% of black students didn’t complete their degrees. In the élite universities for mainly rich students, student fees have doubled. Other universities have raised fees by as much that they thought they can get away with. For many black working class kids, who were systematically excluded from higher education under apartheid, the hope of a university education is as remote as it ever was.
Not only students are hit by cuts in education. As jobs have been outsourced, manual workers on campus have lost up to 50% of their salaries and all access to medical aid. Outsourcing and privatisation is disproportionately hitting black students and workers. And all under the watch of an ANC government, which on election promised free education for all.
This is the background to “Everything Must Fall”, Rehad Desai’s new film about the Fees Must Fall campaign. Desai previously directed “Miners Shot Down”, about the Marikana massacre when government troops killed striking miners. Once more, he is scathing about the betrayals of the ANC government which was elected in 1994 with so much euphoria and hope.
Through interviews with leading activists and supportive academics we experience the story of a mass movement. The talking heads are augmented by news reports of demonstrations and tweets from activists on the ground. We do not hear from one person. ANC Minister of Higher Education Dr Blade Nzimande refused to be interviewed. As police were shooting down large student demonstrations, Nzimande had denounced the student movement as being just “ultra-lefts and Trotskyites”.
Although we see footage from several Universities, the film concentrates on WITS University in Johannesburg, which had been a centre of protests against the apartheid State of Emergency in 1985. This story starts here 30 years later, at a national Day of Action against Outsourcing. Students, manual workers and some sympathetic academics unite to shut down the University. When campus security are called in to remove the demonstrators, they side with the students.
The involvement of non-students helps the movement to generalise their struggle, and to take on the demands of their political allies. Even the name of the campaign shows the political generation going on. It echoes the ongoing “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign which successfully removed the statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town.
Other old prejudices are also challenged. Demands are made to decolonize the syllabus. Slogans are raised against patriarchy, homophobia and capitalism. The WITS students are led by two women of colour – Nompendulo Mkhatshwa, who presumably has a Christian background, and Shaeera Kalla, a Muslim.
16 universities and 11 colleges join the national shutdown and two weeks later there is a march on parliament, which is savagely attacked by police. On the following day, 20,000 students march to the ANC headquarters. ANC Secretary General Gwende Mantashe appears and is invited to join the students’ sit down protest.
It is here that divisions in the movement start to emerge. Despite growing disillusionment with the ANC government, it is still the party of Nelson Mandela, and many student leaders are ANC members. Tensions grow between the party moderates and more radical and working-class students who suspect that a dirty compromise is being prepared. At a crucial point in the campaign, student president Mkhatshwa refuses to make any public statements, for fear of “further dividing the students”.
The depiction of this period is one of the great strengths of the film, which refuses to show just one long victory march. As exams approach, an increasing number of students want to return to their studies. This risks damaging the fragile alliance with campus workers who are still some way from achieving their demands. The interviewed student leaders are torn between their commitment to the campaign and a fear that it is losing momentum.
Descriptions of the developing confrontation are interspersed with interviews with Professor Adam Habib, the genial Vice Chancellor of WITS, who is himself a former activist. Habib obviously sees himself as being caught in the middle between radical students and an intransigent government. Yet as the repression increases, he is forced to take a side.
The first wave of student protest dies down, and the state takes the opportunity to prepare itself. When a new wave of protest starts in January 2016, Habib sends security forces to remove demonstrators from campus. Deprived of a place to effectively organise, divisions between the students start to return.
The struggle ebbs and flows with the relative confidence of the students and the state. When the students are on the back foot, old sexist and homophobic prejudices return, damaging the unity that has been forged through joint struggle. One student states that “we will not be led by women. And we will not be led by gay people”. Yet women stay on the streets and continue to lead a vibrant movement.
The Fees Must Fall campaign shows that protest can win. In early 2018, the South African government promised $4 billion more for education and committed to providing free higher education for students from low income families. This is important in a country where 70% of the population are defined as “working poor”. In addition, 11 more Universities were pressured to end outsourcing, preventing the worst attacks on campus workers by privatised companies.
Nonetheless, repression was able to stop the movement achieving all its aims. A curfew was imposed, and 800 students were arrested, many without bail. When armed police ran riot, a Catholic priest Father Pugan offered fleeing students sanctuary. As a reward, he was shot with a rubber bullet in front of his church. Student leader Kalla was shot with 13 rubber bullets while trying to negotiate. Other student leaders were forced to go into hiding.
Yet even after this lost battle, Kalla’s conclusion is clear: “we will achieve our demand for free decolonized education – but not without a fight.” Another activist is similarly resilient: “they tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds”
In a review of the film, veteran South African socialist Terry Bell wrote: “In many ways reminiscent of the Arab Spring movement in Egypt, this latest record of an important aspect of our recent history opens up many crucial debates about the future, and not only at universities.“ “Everything Must Fall” testifies how different campaigns can unite in practise in fights against a common enemy. But it is not afraid to show the problems that our movement faces, which cannot be overcome without strategic discussion and political leadership.
It is clear that many of the experiences depicted in the film – both good and bad – are highly relevant to struggles elsewhere. This is a film that deserves to be seen, but more important it deserves to be discussed. There is much we can learn from the courageous South African students and workers.
On Thursday, 22nd November, Rehad Desai will be presenting the German premiere of “Everything Must Fall” in the Hackesches Hof cinema in Berlin www.facebook.com/events/188165598754235/. He will be answering questions afterwards, then joining the Berlin LINKE Internationals for a more informal chat in a local bar. We hope that you can join us.