#FeesMustFall started as a legitimate movement, but this legitimacy was rapidly squandered by an ethically compromised leadership, a collapse into crude racial populism, increasingly authoritarian forms of organising and an infantile romanticising of violence. Photo: EPA
#FeesMustFall started as a legitimate movement, but this legitimacy was rapidly squandered by an ethically compromised leadership, a collapse into crude racial populism, increasingly authoritarian forms of organising and an infantile romanticising of violence. Photo: EPA

‘Rebels and Rage’ a riveting read on student protest movement

By Imraan Buccus Time of article published Mar 18, 2019

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Adam Habib’s political roots lie in the Unity Movement. The Unity Movement never achieved anything like the scale of mobilisation associated with the United Democratic Front or the trade union movement. 

It also never became as fashionable as the Black Consciousness Movement, which, although it attracted significant student support, also never became a mass movement.

However, the Unity Movement was arguably the most intellectually serious of the various factions of the anti-apartheid Struggle. Its leading intellectual light, Neville Alexander, was a profound thinker who refused both dogmatism and populism.

In the 1980s, when the slogan “Liberation now, education later” was resulting in a lost generation of black children, Alexander opposed this reckless populism on a principled basis and argued for education as a route to liberation. His position was not popular but in retrospect it was clearly right.

In a period when social media- driven populism, usually in the form of far-right-wing racism and nationalism, is infecting politics around the world, a return to the principled and thoughtful politics of Alexander makes good sense. Populism is not only a right-wing disease. 

In Zimbabwe and Venezuela, the forms of politics that led to economic collapse and mass emigration were justified in the language of radical nationalism, often supported by misguided left-wing intellectuals.

Habib’s new book, Rebels and Rage, is a riveting read. It is not an academic tome and reads more like a thriller. I read it in one sitting, and no doubt many others will do the same.

Habib, as a progressive, is deeply sympathetic to the two main concerns that led to the FeesMustFall movement. He wants university education to be accessible to all and university workers to be treated fairly. 

He is clear that social progress often requires mass mobilisation, and mobilisation often has to be disruptive to win real gains.

But his account of the student protests at Wits from 2015 to 2018 also raises serious questions about the students and the academics who romanticised their actions.

Habib shows that the student movement was often authoritarian, its leaders frequently dishonest and duplicitous, and that both the ANC and the EFF often instrumentalised the movement for their own interests.

Unlike the Wits academics who romanticised the movement, who he describes as the “Pol Pot brigade”, Habib doesn’t shy away from noting that some of its leaders had histories of violence and abuse and that there were issues of racial and gender-based chauvinism and intolerance in the movement. 

He even refers to some student leaders as “self-appointed political commissars” whose conduct was “reminiscent of far-right behaviour”.

Like many commentators, Habib argues that the movement had wide social legitimacy when it marched on the Union Buildings in 2015.

He describes this as “the high point of the social movement” and argues that this legitimacy, which gave the movement real power, was rapidly squandered by an ethically compromised leadership, a collapse into crude racial populism, increasingly authoritarian forms of organising and a substitution of strategic analysis for what he rightly calls an “infantile romanticising of violence”.

Habib laments that dishonesty that became routine among student leaders and the conduct of the media, which he describes as “addicted to sensationalism” and hauls over the coals for repeated publication of false claims.

At times, what Habib describes is infuriating. The failure of self-identified leftist intellectuals to publicly condemn the burning of books in Durban and art in Cape Town, both practices associated with fascism, is simply outrageous. The silence of these same intellectuals in the face of Mcebo Dlamini’s declaration of his admiration for Hitler is equally outrageous.

But at times, what Habib describes is quite funny. The idea of a bunch of white academics, some of them expats, bursting into a council meeting and hectoring people like Habib and Barney Pityana about “whiteness” is so farcical it will make many laugh.

Habib began his academic career at the former University of Durban-Westville (UDW), as did I.

He notes that this university was eventually destroyed by a highly authoritarian form of populism presenting itself as left wing.

What Habib wants is a kind of pragmatic radicalism that can make real and sustainable changes. He wants to avoid Wits going the way of UDW, or Zimbabwe or Venezuela.

His model is more like Sweden or Germany, a workable compromise rather than scorched earth. He is certainly correct to argue that expat academics, and the rich, will have other options if our institutions fail, but that for the working class and the poor they are the only options.

The primary question that he asks in this book is “how to respond to a legitimate social struggle on the one hand, while avoiding an eventual decline in the university’s academic standards on the other”. This is a principled and rational question, and Habib’s reflections on it are always interesting and important for our future.

Habib is particularly good on the practical questions of funding, and how to respond to an increasingly small, intolerant and sometimes violent minority trying to impose their will on a majority. But the book does leave the reader with a number of questions.

One of these pertains to the question of race. All the progressive traditions in South Africa counted Indians as black. But in Habib’s book it’s clear that, at Wits, Indians are now classed with whites, while Africans and coloureds are considered as black. Some reflections on how this happened, and what it means, would’ve been useful.

Habib also shies away from exploring the role of the Zuma faction of the ANC in the protests. He does note that most student leaders at Wits were involved in the ANC and describes many as “displaying behavioural traits that are typical of the most venal of the country’s politicians”.

However, he doesn’t explore the already established links between some student leaders and state intelligence. David Mahlobo, then minister of state security, admitted that Dlamini was a regular visitor to his home.

This is very much a book about Wits. But it’s interesting to note that at UCT, Lindsay Maasdorp from Black First Land First (BLF), a fascistic front group for Zuma and the Guptas, was in the forefront of the protests. Links have been demonstrated between BLF and Bell Pottinger, and it seems unlikely BLF was not connected to state intelligence operations.

It would be worth exploring this in further detail because the student movement often preferred to vilify vice-chancellors as personalities rather than to ascribe the blame of the funding crisis to the state.

If this mistake was just a result of the collapse into anti-intellectual populism, often tinged with racism, that would make it just another strategic error on the part of a movement that, after 2015, rapidly became increasingly populist and authoritarian.

But if Zuma’s intelligence services were actively trying to exploit the student movement to draw attention away from Zuma’s failings, and to undermine universities, a source of constant critique for the notoriously anti-intellectual Zuma, who infamously loathed “clever blacks”, then we would have to reconsider much of what happened in those years.

The bottom line is that this is an important book that aims to address crucial questions for our future. We need to take justice seriously and need to find pragmatic ways of doing so.

We may not all agree with every point Habib makes in this book, but the questions he asks about how to develop a pragmatic radicalism are certainly the right questions to be asking.

Buccus is senior research associate at the Aliwal Socio-Economic Research Institute, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation.

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