A letter on Fees Must Fall

By Nathan Geffen

23 October 2016

This is an edited version of a letter I sent to young activists in some social movements on 16 October 2016. I was given much assistance in writing the initial letter. This final edited version is based on additional feedback I received. Thanks to everyone who helped.

The past month has been confusing and complex. It has been difficult to reconcile divided and strongly felt views. The Fees Must Fall (FMF) movement has begun disintegrating, and so have several universities. The video of a student leader telling the UCT science faculty that decolonising science means "doing away with it entirely and starting it from the beginning" has been watched over 800,000 times, accompanied with much derision. I don't find the video funny, and I have no desire to mock her.

More than anything, watching that video made me realise how my generation and the one older than mine have failed the current generation of students. I realise that many protesting students won’t agree with the view she expressed, but that someone in a leadership position in FMF, the movement at the centre of SA politics right now, promotes this position is deeply disturbing. It's more disturbing to me than listening to Mcebo Dlamini praise Hitler and Mugabe, and express the wish for South Africa to be taken down the Zimbabwean route. It means this young person isn't aware of our country's recent history, a decade ago, when hundreds of thousands of people died because of the rejection of science, let alone the era in which the apartheid regime was defeated. It means that she's unaware that over 3 million people in South Africa are being kept alive by a medical intervention based on cutting-edge science, and that many people, mostly black and poor, dedicated their lives to making that possible - just a few years ago.

I am white, male, 45 and middle-class. The learning tradition I am from says that who you are isn't relevant to the truth of what you say. That is true, but it is not a view accepted by many students, and I've come to realise that a more nuanced and modest attitude is required in our politics. Those who adhere to the tradition I subscribe to must also own up, ironically enough, to a tendency amongst some of them to dismiss knowledge precisely because of where it comes from. I come from a politics that abhors identity politics -- I still do for the most part -- but I realise that what I express here is undoubtedly skewed by my identity which is the most privileged one in South African society. Hopefully that won't make people dismiss what I write here as irrelevant. I also realise I harp on too much about the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and its success, but now more than ever the reasons for TAC's success versus FMF's current failures, need to be analysed. This is my attempt to do so. This letter will not deal with the substance of the FMF demands, only with its strategy.

TAC's struggle differed from FMF’s in profound ways. For one thing it was a battle for life itself not just a better life, although the latter is also extremely important. But the strategic differences are profound. I will do my best to discuss them here under five headings: Organisation, Moral Consensus, Constitutionalism, Claim No Victories Ever and Civil Disobedience.


Ask any sane person in the 2000s which organisation was leading the SA struggle for HIV treatment and she would have responded TAC, an organisation headed at distinct times by Zackie Achmat, Sipho Mthathi and Vuyiseka Dubula who were part of an elected executive structure that made decisions in consultation with members, and were responsible to those members. The executive was always overwhelmingly black, and, depending on the year, often majority women.

TAC built branches across the country. We had a membership database and a list of branches, when and where they met, and who was in them. Those branches allowed us to mobilise frequent massive marches with thousands of people, some well over 10,000 (perhaps much higher). I don't think FMF in Cape Town can mobilise over a 1,000.

The TAC membership was very predominantly black, and mostly women. We had regular executive meetings that would consider feedback and representations from our branches across the country. Before our two-yearly national congresses, branches would elect representatives for provincial congresses, in which resolutions would be proposed for the national congress. The core day-to-day work of TAC at branch level was treatment literacy: teaching people about the basics of HIV treatment and prevention, and at times complex scientific aspects about HIV, or about the laws and obstacles to accessing essential medicines. In my experience, TAC members demonstrated a feeling of ownership over the organisation and a willingness to hold its leaders to account.

Let's not romanticise this: like any complex organisation TAC had (and still has) its fair share of chaos, bureaucratic nonsense and internal politics. There were incidents of corruption (dealt ruthlessly with). And we were human: some males in leadership were at times too macho, too aggressive - myself included - and this contributed to a rupture in the leadership in 2007/8, when a serious but resolvable disagreement over the direction of the organisation tore us apart. But it was positively trivial compared to the public macho posturing one sees from FMF protesters. There was also a strong ethos against sexual harassment in TAC, and some members were subjected to disciplinary action in this regard.

I should emphasise that contrary to a sometimes-expressed view by people with no inside knowledge of the organisation, TAC was never white-led. Mark Heywood and myself had leadership positions for much of the organisation's history, but anyone who thinks Zackie, Sipho or Vuyiseka would take orders from white men clearly doesn't know them. But more importantly, the decision-making process was not the will of any one person, but a process that involved consultation between the various structures within the organisation.

It was the elected leadership's job to ensure that TAC made strategically wise decisions through this consultative process. If it didn't, new leaders would have to be elected. If TAC did something wrong, not only the members, but the entire South African public knew the specific names of who to hold accountable: the members of TAC's executive. SJC and EE are modelled on this structure. We know that Phumeza Mlungwana and Tshepo Motsepe together with their executives are accountable for these organisations' decisions and actions, be those decisions wise or not.

Who leads the battle for fees to fall? FMF is not an organisation. It's an amorphous collection of rapidly changing sometimes formal, sometimes informal groupings and people. Which person leads it right now? Is it Mcebo Dlamini? Shaeera Kalla? Masixole Mlandu? Or any of a dozen other people? Who is elected? The Wits SRC is, but does it lead FMF beyond Wits or even completely at Wits? Dlamini isn't on the SRC but there's no doubt he's at the centre of events and has something like a cult following. And the people leading FMF at UCT, who have been negotiating with the vice-chancellor don't appear to have any mandate from any formal structure.

I realise that structure cannot emerge overnight and that often in contexts of protest there is a spontaneity that outruns any possibility of carefully laid plans, and that is often a good thing. There were aspects of this in the 2015 FMF protests. My criticism is when a virtue is made of necessity, i.e. when a lack of structure is spoken about as preferable.

This rejection of structure, of elected and accountable leadership by students is perhaps understandable. Part of the FMF critique is the view that democratically elected leaders fail us, with Zuma as the obvious example. But the unstructured nature of FMF has meant that no one is accountable. Dlamini largely goes uncriticised by FMF for his outrageous views and actions. A bus is burnt in Braamfontein in front of dozens of media and no one in FMF takes responsibility. Instead outside forces are blamed.

The leaders of TAC or EE could never get away with this, which is one of the reasons why there is great emphasis on discipline in these organisations. But here's the thing: FMF doesn't really get away with it. People hold the entire movement responsible for the violence and disruptions over the past weeks. When UKZN's law library burnt, people outside the movement, myself included, believe the whole of FMF is to blame. And we are right because this is not a movement that puts much store in discipline or structure. It usually fails to condemn ill-discipline.

Because there is no structure, people wanting to assume some kind of prominent leadership role compete against each other all the time. They do so by trying to be more radical than their rivals, rather than more concerned about what strategy will best serve the cause. Some de facto leaders from more privileged backgrounds, lacking a proper mandate, feel unable to negotiate or compromise, for fear of being accused of selling out.

Over the past few weeks there has been much violence and intimidation by FMF people. I have witnessed it first hand and GroundUp reporters have witnessed it or found clear evidence of it. Thousands of stones have been thrown.

The most violent action that I am aware of that was ever committed by a TAC member in a protest occurred in 2003 when a young woman, whose mother had either just died or was very ill from AIDS, threw her shoe at what she believed was Manto Tshabalala-Msimang's car (it wasn't - it was a car in her convoy - and the shoe bounced harmlessly away). Despite being beaten, water-cannoned, shot at, teargassed by police, arrested (for many while they or their loved ones were dying of AIDS) I am not aware of a single stone ever being thrown by a TAC member in a protest action. Not one. This was not because we were angels. It was because we had structure and leadership, and because we wanted to win the moral consensus of South African society.

Moral Consensus

Underlying nearly every TAC action was the view that we needed to build very broad support for rolling out HIV treatment in the public sector. TAC is/was composed mostly of black African working class women. But, getting the support of middle-class people, black and white, was a vital part of our strategy. As was getting the support of working class people, religious leaders, doctors and nurses. Our members took part in debates all the time in the media. Most of the time we treated the media with respect.

We planned our arguments. Instructions from the national office would filter down to the branches, and these were debated with leaders attending branch meetings to account for decisions and take guidance from members. We welcomed people of different political persuasions, religions and backgrounds. Black gays and lesbians flocked to TAC because it was a place they could feel comfortable. FMF talks about intersectionality but is permeated by a scarily macho culture. We didn't have such a fancy word for what was going on in TAC, but I've little doubt intersectionality existed more in TAC than in FMF.

Every action of FMF in recent weeks (and frequently before) seems to be aimed at rejecting moral consensus. There have been very few attempts to cajole, bring in, debate, or work with people. In 2016 FMF has not felt like a welcoming movement, not one that seeks alliances as a rule rather than as an exception. I struggle to understand this perhaps more than any aspect of FMF. If you want to change policy, you need many people in as many sectors of society as possible to support you, especially in a fractured and divided society like ours.

At times it is true that you have to be more militant, escalate a conflict to build greater support and cohesion with your core base, and thereby risk alienating, for example, middle-class support, which was a risk of TAC’s civil disobedience campaign. But why go out of your way to alienate people perceived to likely be opposed to what you're demanding? There are almost always opportunities for getting support from unexpected places.

Even worse, FMF makes little effort to get the support of its most obvious constituency. FMF has alienated many South African black students. There has not been a decisive breaking of ranks by black students, but there is nothing like the support that saw many thousands march on the Union Buildings, in an impressive display last year. As I wondered around UCT the other day, many of the students I encountered working in laboratories in defiance of FMF’s demand for a shutdown were black. GroundUp reporters have interviews black students who are upset at the prospect of losing the academic year. And the complete disregard for the challenges faced by sub-Saharan African students means FMF has little support amongst them.

One of TAC's most vital alliances was with Cosatu. The traditions of organisational structure and discipline, coupled with careful strategic planning were deeply embedded in the culture of both organisations, and they reinforced and thrived upon each other's strengths. TAC as the younger organisation gained more from Cosatu's culture than vice-versa. Sadly, the decline in Cosatu over the past two or three years has left FMF without this natural ally from which it could have gained much.


That's not a great title for this point, but it will have to do. TAC recognised the system. We used the courts, the Competition Commission, and the Advertising Standards Authority. We made submissions to whoever we could: Parliament, the African Union, conferences, pretty much anything relevant to our work, both local and international.

Now I realise that a significant section of FMF rejects the Constitution, and most of the other institutions of government in what is called Fallism. But even so I find it flabbergasting that FMF (or one of its constituent parts, like Wits FMF) did not make a submission to the Fees Commission.

Finally a few weeks ago the Wits SRC published a proposal. I can't comment on the quality: that's not my area of expertise. But that proposal should have been formally handed to the Fees Commission months ago. Even under apartheid, activists engaged with the courts and instruments of governance, as illegitimate as they were. I can't see how it makes sense to be so disdainful of the current structures of governance, imperfect as they are.

Claim no victories ever

There's that cliché "Claim no easy victories". FMF has taken it to an extreme this year: claim no victories at all, ever. So when Blade Nzimande announced a maximum 8% fee increase this year, no fee increase for poor students and what appeared to be a graded increase for families with incomes less than R600k, FMF rejected it. I understand that this still leaves fees high, meaning potential exclusion for many students, provoking a sense of desperation in some. Not the same desperation dying comrades felt in TAC, but a real desperation nonetheless. But I think nearly any other activist movement on the planet would have greeted Nzimande's concession as a victory. Not a great one perhaps, a flawed one perhaps, but a victory nevertheless.

Then FMF could have said to Nzimande: "We welcome this. But you now need to commit to the next step which is this, this and that. Let's talk." UCT SRC did something like this, but frankly UCT SRC is not part of FMF. (It's not part of anything.) It was a massive overestimation of its own powers for FMF to reject Nzimande's proposal so brazenly. Treating it as a limited victory may have been an opportunity to build the movement and to grow a moral consensus. FMF thoroughly missed the opportunity.

By comparison, when TAC won the mother-to-child transmission court case in 2002 the state was compelled only to use an inferior cheaper regimen, not as effective as those used elsewhere at the time. But that victory paved the way for our campaign for treatment for people with HIV to be made available in public health facilities, and eventually a more effective mother-to-child transmission prevention regimen.

Civil Disobedience

The hardest period for TAC was when we engaged in civil disobedience in 2003. Even our ally COSATU criticised us for this saying that civil disobedience should not be used against a legitimate government. COSATU was wrong on this point, both philosophically and historically, but that's a very long discussion.

However, here's some of the preparation that was involved in TAC's civil disobedience: We held workshops with our members, hundreds of people at a time, to discuss what civil disobedience entailed, the kind of strict discipline that was needed when the police came at us, the risk of arrest, detention, prosecution and a criminal record. In our early mobilisation in Cape Town, you had to sign up for civil disobedience - literally - a form saying you understood what it meant. If you were under 18 you weren't allowed to participate.

Critically we accepted that we were breaking the law, that we might be arrested and that we'd have to answer for and take responsibility for our actions in court. Also, civil disobedience was a last resort, something that we used sparingly. We didn't make a fetish out of it. We spent hours and hours explaining its purpose to the general public in media interviews. We warned the government at least a month in advance that it was coming and that it could be avoided. We once occupied a health facility in Queenstown and although our members were shot at by the cops on that day, they never threw a single stone, as far as I'm aware. They were also "dondered" by the cops when they attempted to occupy a police station in Durban. But now here's an interesting thing: when we occupied Caledon Square Police Station in Cape Town, the cops didn't want to arrest us. Frankly they liked us too much. Our moral consensus had spread so far that the cops were on our side.

I simply can't imagine that happening with FMF, beyond individual cops. The Wits SRC General Secretary Fasiha Hassan made a speech accusing a private security guard of theft (which may have been true) and on that basis went on to label every one of the private security guards "criminals on our campus". This is a strange way for a middle-class activist to describe working class black men.

Most revolutionaries in history understood that when the police and army were won over victory was more likely, and in the modern age this would include private security: instead, in the main, they have been insulted, attacked and alienated (the man who very touchingly gave flowers to cops at Wits being one of the exceptions). Of course the ill-trained police and security have been violent towards protesters, in some cases shockingly so, but violence against cops and security guards (as we have seen) may ultimately result in lives lost and the already oppressed part of our society more deeply divided.

For FMF civil disobedience is the norm, not an action of last resort used tactically. They have made a principle out of a tactic. Classes are not disrupted once, twice or thrice, but continuously. Roads to UCT are blocked repeatedly. When the police step in to arrest, clashes ensue with protesters using stones, fire extinguishers, water hydrants, even police riot gear. Security guards have been assaulted (here too). Things are burnt. Ironing boards, mattresses, even kayaks, "kattys", petrol bombs, bins and rocks have been used as weapons or defensive shields by protesters. And of course fire. No responsibility is taken when arrests are made, demonstrating no knowledge of the history of civil disobedience either in South Africa or in elsewhere.

Protest and civil disobedience often inconveniences the state and sometimes the public. This is legitimate, but a choice to inconvenience the public can alienate potential support so the decision must be made carefully. Beyond inconveniencing the state and the public, civil disobedience would usually try to avoid infringing other people’s rights, especially the rights of the movement’s own constituency and potential supporters. The Wits opinion poll should have given FMF’s leaders pause to reflect on this. In a legitimate and necessary fight for educational rights and equality, FMF has infringed people's rights by denying them access to their university activities (or burning their libraries and transport etc). A shutdown that reduces the number of doctors entering community service or teachers entering public schools is divisive among poor people.

In a sense, what FMF is doing is not civil disobedience. It is a form of insurrection, lacking its substance. Insurrection is a drastic strategy in which a minority through physical confrontation with authority, hopes to win a majority. It cannot be overstated what a delusion it is to think that the current FMF protests are winning broad support and becoming revolutionary in nature – in fact support has shrunk. There are times, relatively infrequent, in history when insurrection makes sense and is even a moral imperative. This is not one of those times. FMF has neither the support from the general public, nor the numbers on the street (perhaps by at least two orders -- 100 x -- of magnitude, if not more) to conduct an insurrection. Nor do the political conditions of the country (dire as they are), nor the issue of fees for university education, important as that is, warrant an insurrection. The entire notion is ludicrous.

For TAC, civil disobedience culminated in government agreeing to roll out HIV treatment. Nothing has done more to erode FMF's support than the civil disobedience (or illusory insurrection) of the past few weeks. The contrast couldn't be greater. The support for FMF has eroded, although it will no doubt continue to cause some damage, even disable some universities. Without regrouping and changing the way it does things its aims will not be achievable. On the contrary, the country could be made considerably poorer by FMF's actions. Already many hundreds of millions of rands damage to public property (universities) has occured.

You may ask why I am focusing my criticism here on the students and spending so little energy criticising the absence of leadership from the ANC government, the failings of the university VCs, the role of police and private security, or the callousness of some white people on social media and elsewhere. I have a lot to say about the culpability of all of the above, and don’t blame the students for the entire impasse or for the desperate situation some of them confront daily. I am focusing on the students because my instinctive desire is to support those fighting for a better world, and my hope is that struggles can be organised that will succeed. This letter is my very small attempt to contribute to a debate about how that might happen. I am writing all of the above from the point of view of someone who desires an effective university student movement and someone who took heart from the emergence of FMF in 2015, albeit with some reservations.

The activist tradition I come from is one in which the movement holds itself to an impeccable standard, so far above the forces it is confronting that any fair observer can see that the difference between the movement and its opponents is like day and night. Constructive criticism of a movement is more important than excusing the movement’s flaws by pointing to worse flaws in its opponents. Many ‘radical’ commentators, most of whom have never built a movement or waged a struggle in active solidarity with working class people, spend their days exculpating the movement. Often they do this for themselves more than for the movement. I offer these criticisms because where I come from criticism is essential to activism.

There is one more thing that should concern us. I believe universities are justified in using the police, poorly trained and often unnecessarily violent as they have been, to protect the majority of students and staff who want their institutions to stay open and to ensure that universities, which play a vital role in the development of the country, continue to function -- notwithstanding the need for them to transform. The constitutional role (205(3)) of the police is to protect people, and a competent police force is vital to our democracy (read this by Steven Friedman). On UCT men carrying sticks roam about with impunity threatening, and sometimes using, physical violence; this is not democratic protest in any shape or form. Consider the possibility of the much larger scale of the crackdown that will eventually come from the state if the current chaos on campuses, or the total shutdown, carries on for many more months. This is crucial. We should worry that the chaos on campuses in the past month or so can be used by securocrats to justify not only an intensely authoritarian response to FMF, but an authoritarian grip over our whole society. We should fear that if the chaos continues, or spreads, popular support might build for a much more 'kragdadig' law-and-order crackdown than is currently needed to keep campuses open. We could see a big man emerging promising to bring order, and we could see a constituency of both the wealthy and the working-class begin to emerge willing to allow all kinds of rights infringements, detention without trial, brutality, spying and restrictions of movement in the name of peace and stability. If that happens I will place the blame on the authoritarians, but it must be understood that creating chaos might help to allow exactly that kind of disastrous development.

I want to end this on a positive note, because there is too much doom and gloom at the moment, so much so that it has become demobilising. There are organisations, institutions and individuals that have moral authority. They have a duty to take a stand now. Retired judges, respected struggle veterans, former (and even a few current) government ministers, the Human Rights Commission, Equal Education (in alliance with other social movements), community leaders, religious leaders, union leaders, activists, parents, students and academics need to come together and lead a campaign for equal access to tertiary, as well as primary and secondary, education. That campaign needs to be taken to Parliament and the Union Buildings.

More than ever since South African democracy began we need to emphatically assert our commitment to upholding and struggling for the values of our Constitution.

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