In defence of fallism: A response to #FeesMustFall critics

In an article published recently on The Daily Vox, Ebrahim Fakir and Ayesha Soni posed some serious challenges to the #FeesMustFall (FMF) movement, and members of the fallist movement. This contentious engagement is welcome, as it draws attention to a number of issues that have been – continually – leveled against the student movement over the years.

In hopes of taking the discussion forward, The Daily Vox has unpacked some of the key claims raised by the authors which speak to general concerns many in the public have voiced.

Claim 1: FMF is nothing unique or new. When compared to other protests, in both means and motives, student protests are self serving and destructive

In some sense, FMF is indeed nothing new. Fallists and other commentators have said that theirs is but a continuation of a struggle that was started, and abandoned, after “liberation was won”. And if we take a step back, we see that FMF takes place in a social context where issues of poverty, inequality and legacies of injustice are still felt by communities. These issues cannot be separated from FMF.

But at the same time there are a couple of things FMF has brought to the table that, if not new, are at least remarkable:

  • It’s dispelled the myth that South Africa’s youth are politically apathetic – and inspired many others – to understand themselves as political actors beyond voting;
  • It’s started an international conversation and disrupted the stagnant state of higher education on all levels – representation, funding, curriculum, institutional role, stakeholders;
  • The status quo of South Africa was existentially rocked on many of its ideological fronts. Mandela’s “rainbow nation” with all its unfulfilled promises was asked to account for the lack of progress two decades later; and
  • The voice of youth, ironically the majority in South Africa, was made part of the national conversation in a way unlike it ever has since 1994.

Indeed, one of the most prominent tactics by critiques of the student movements since 2015 has been to reduce it to a single issue, when fallists have fully elaborated that it’s so much more than that.

As to whether comparing community protests to the student movement is “odious”, the romantic casting of community protests – in contrast to the selfish “special interest kind” of student protests – is a false dichotomy.

Community protests, more often than not, arise precisely because a community rightly feels there is something they should be benefitting from which isn’t being provided – whether service delivery, adequate healthcare or access to higher education. Frustration towards bureaucratic means is also not unique to either. When engagement with rules, processes and institutions have either proved unresponsive or outright apathetic to legitimate calls for change, individuals take to tactics outside of them. This is true for student protests, as well as other protests.

Claim 2: University as a ‘public good’ is amorphous

Free education as a “public good” is only really amorphous if you haven’t been following the discourse – both locally and abroad.

The basic idea is that under the rule of market-driven economies, education has come to be treated as a commodity for consumption – it’s value reduced to its function of increasing “human capital”, employability and income. While employment and income are, rightfully, of immediate concern to many, the argument is that education should play an emancipatory role in helping individuals and society develop in line with public interests.

As the Centre for Higher Education and Training points out, academics have been discussing the various developmental roles of higher education, for postcolonial Africa, for decades. Educationalist Mahmood Mamdani, who many fallists draw from, speaks directly to these issues.

Understanding what these educationalists are saying also addresses one of the other key misunderstandings made regarding free education: that students aren’t simply proposing greater access, but that education should be directed towards playing a critical role in dictating the direction South Africa is headed towards. Equipping students to not just become “human capital” within society’s grand market economy, but free-thinking agents interested and geared towards developing our society.

Claim 3: Fallists prioritise free education over other socially imperative matters

The concern raised by Fakir and Soni here is that many of the models for free education for all call for most, if not all, the funds to come from government. Given that our government’s budget is finite in a given year, increased allocation to higher education would mean less will be spent elsewhere. The worry is that fallists are placing higher value on free education as opposed to healthcare, social grants, basic education and other sectors which are of national concern.

But this argument is a straw man. No student or movement has ever endorsed such zero-sum reasoning.

Some of the things they have suggested include: increases to private income tax (for South Africa’s richest) and corporate tax; introducing a financial speculation and wealth tax on assets; taxing the platinum and gold sector and curbing corruption and capital flight to offshore accounts.

As professor Rasigan Maharajh told the Daily Vox, taxation is not a radical idea and has over history been flexible relative to the requirements of state expenditures and the domestic economy.

“During cyclical downturns, increased expenditures for both welfare and enterprise support results in higher demands on the fiscus budget. In such circumstances tax rates included the US imposing a 94% rate on any income above US$200 000 (US$2.4 million in 2009 rates) in 1944/1945,” he said.

While no-one is suggesting anything quite so interesting as the US example, there’s nothing unheard of about many of suggestions made by fallists. As professor Patrick Bond pointed out just before this year’s budget speech, business taxes accounted for 4.5% of GDP in 2016. It was 7% a decade ago and 9% in 2008.

“Treasury has also lowered corporate taxes: from 56% of distributed profits in 1994 to 43% in 1997 to 39% in 2000 to 35% in 2009 and then down to 28% by 2013. Restoring corporate taxes back to 7% of GDP would raise R110 billion (five times more than the proposed one percentage point rise in VAT),” he wrote .

Of course, it’s also important to note that not all pushing for free education agree that there should be no user-pays model for the richest students. Others believe we should be flexible in the outlook for the future.

Claim 4: “The attempt of the #FMF movement to be positioned as leaderless and mass led in a sense avoids responsibility and eschews accountability”

One of the focuses and most powerful things about #FMF has been it’s refocusing on the power of an individual as an independent political actor. It’s disrupted this notion that political activity is something you only engage in every few years when you vote for another to represent you – or that you have to be a politician to be involved in politics.

At plenaries, this idea of one’s own individual will and relevance in decision-making is brought to the fore when the way-forward is decided upon on consensus. There is thus mass accountability for actions taken.

Irrespective, I – and no doubt others – am quite unconvinced as to how “leaderless” the fallist movement is. The Wits movement definitely has identified leaders – which raised a number of problems as well.

The most obvious of these problems is the fact that these leaders become easy targets. This meant some leaders were “coincidentally” shot at close range by police officers, arrested or otherwise pressured to go into hiding. In wake of this the movement was left unsure of its direction. The quickest way to slay a beast is to cut off its head. This becomes difficult if it has an indefinite amount of heads.

Claim 5: “What the #FMF has unwittingly given credence to, is the excuse for bureaucratic overreach into the institutional autonomy and academic freedom of universities”

The worry here is that government has been given too much power to intervene in the decisions of universities – which compromises their autonomy.

As the Daily Vox has written previously, this debate is something on which we should definitely keep a close eye. But as Wits Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib said in his interview with us, legitimate concern over the matter is somewhat premature. Government involvement in university affairs has thus far been quite democratic in nature.
It’s also disingenuous to claim that universities’ own failures (and repeated attempts to silence academics looking to change things) haven’t played a part in government deciding to step in to “help” coordinate the way forward.

As Habib told us last year, “There are institutions where white students in certain campuses constitute over 70%. That’s not acceptable – and they need to be held publicly accountable”.

So let’s not be quite so quick to blame students for collective failures on behalf of those in power. There’s enough blame to go around.

Going forward

The overall takeaway, I think, is that many critics of fallism and FMF are quite quick to dismiss, relegate or preemptively assume the cognitive biases of fallists. Worse still is when they take the route of using “well established” doctrine of our market-driven status quo in order to critique those who challenge it. There’s a perverse kind of circular reasoning involved in using market principles to argue against their orthodoxy.

So a lot of the debate ends up being rhetoric, and not argument, by way of using reductive reasoning to label students as idealistic, amorphous, romantic, impatient and so on. Accusing the left of this, or the right of that; appealing to the moderate view as the “objective balance”.

It’s almost satirical.

But it’s cool, because the challenges posed are also worthwhile considering as we go forward. There’s much debate to be had regarding the mitigating for possibilities of moral hazards and quality declines, which there hasn’t been as much local debate on as yet.

So keep the critique coming – fallists, if nothing else, welcome challenges.

Featured image by Yeshiel Panchia