There are so many phenomenal stories about our political freedom that are less told. The story of Ruth First is such a story. First was a white women who forwent personal privilege and devoted her life to the anti-apartheid struggle. She was eventually killed by the apartheid government in 1982.
Yesterday, I attended an event at Jeppe High School for Girls that was put together by the Ruth First Jeppe Memorial Trust. The evening began with powerful young mbokodos reliving August 9 1956. To everyone’s pleasant surprise, Sophie Williams-de Bruyn recounted the historical day for us. Then, we were treated to a personal tribute of First’s life by her close friend and Rivonia trialist Ahmed Kathrada.
The words of American civil rights movement activist Philip Randolph echoed in my head: “freedom is never given, it is won”. The evening was a gentle reminder that this was true of our hard earned political freedom. Many people had to effectively organise themselves around a cause, recruit allies and effectively channel their efforts for the attainment of this goal.
Our country is one where people have organised around many noble causes and have won. Our history is rich with victories over injustices – racial oppression, gender discrimination, marriage inequality and denied access to healthcare. Students pushing for so-called free education can learn from these triumphant movements, especially when it comes to the importance of organisation, alliances and approach.
In 1902 white women organised to form the Women’s Enfranchisement Association of the Union (WEAC) which eventually led to their getting the vote in 1930. 1912 saw the early formation of what became the ANC – a main contributor in black Africans ultimately getting the vote in 1994. In the very same year, what is currently known as the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project (LGEP) was an instrumental organisation in lobbying for sexual orientation to be included in the constitution’s equality clause; this later played a key role in the recognising of same-sex marriages in 2006. The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) was yet another exemplary organisation that came together and successfully advocated for the state to administrator ARV’s to people with HIV/Aids. As a result, SA now has the largest ARV program in the world. When we organise effectively, we can triumph.
In an open letter to FMF, TAC activist Nathan Geffen speaks of their organisation and how its leadership was part of an elected structure that not only made decisions in consultation with its members, but was also held highly accountable by those very members and the public. He goes on further to draw parallels with the FMF movement and how it lacks both a formalised structure and elected leadership that can be held accountable.
Once formalised, agendas can be appropriately defined and leaders that best represent members can be identified. Only once such structure exists can you properly consolidate efforts and associate yourself with certain approaches while disassociating from misrepresentative ones. This is crucial and FMF lacks this structure.
What do I mean? Well, as Geffen puts it “FMF is not an organisation. It’s an amorphous collection of rapidly changing sometimes formal, sometimes informal groupings and people”. This movement formed in response to proposed fee increases at individual universities across the country. It does not have elected leaders that are acting from a mandate from members it can be accountable to. No one can tell me who the leader of FMF is. The SRC leaders from the various universities are serving their constituencies and not the movement as a whole.
The movement has now become bigger than the individual universities – it is a national one that requires unified efforts similar to how Cosatu organises. It needs members that have a clear agenda and subsequently, leaders that can be held liable by both those members and the public in the event of things going wrong. Currently, both supporters of FMF and the public cannot take anyone to book when they do.
How are self-elected leaders like Mcebo Dlamini held accountable for their controversial views that isolate many potential allies and supporters of FMF? When Dlamini praises Hitler, how does FMF distance itself? The answer is it can’t. The ANC could take Winne Madikizela-Mandela to book and distance itself from her when she supported necklacing in the 1980s, which it felt was not part of its own official approach. This is important when championing a social justice cause and recruiting allies to help advance that cause. Students alone cannot secure their demands. As with the success of any struggle, allies are crucial.
The lack of structure also allows detractors to use potentially peripheral views that may discredit the movement as a whole. When “protesters” loot stores in Braamfontein the public blames the movement as a whole, as opposed to specific leaders or rogue elements. This is injurious to increased support.
What is also damaging to FMF is the mainstreaming of opinion that might not reflect the movement at large. An example of this is the video of a black UCT student calling for the abolition of science due to it being a construct of “Western modernity”. Because the FMF movement is nebulous, it is difficult to formally distance itself from such statements, allowing opponents to impose those views on FMF and delegitimise it.
Lastly, FMF ought to get more creative. Protesting is one form of advancing a cause; it isn’t the only form however. As effective as it may be at times, it may not be the most effective at others.
Violent protests have become normalised in SA and more often than not, they aren’t necessary. When we are angry we burn and destroy. We have to find a less destructive way of communicating. This was understandable under apartheid where legal institutions were illegitimate. We are now fortunate enough to be home to a very liberal constitution which is supported by strong institutions such as our courts. These are great avenues to advocate for change when leveraged correctly and FMF has totally underutilised these. FMF made no submission in the Fee Commission and they certainly haven’t utilised the courts when this could well be a constitutional matter. Housing and marriage equality were secured through these and accessible education could be as well. Of course a faction of FMF called “fallism” discards the constitution – which goes to show that a formal organisation is necessary for the ideology that will inform the approach.