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Bravo students: ‘The doors of learning and culture shall be opened’

The ongoing student protests across the country confirm, unambiguously, the failure of the neoliberal system in South Africa, which requires a hefty increase in student fees every year, given the fact that universities are now part of the invidious neoliberal economic system, instead of being state-funded public institutions. And don’t tell me that it is unaffordable. If taxpayers’ money were to be properly used — and the cavernous hole of corruption plugged, which robs the country of BILLIONS of rand in state coffers annually — students would probably be able to study free at all our institutions of higher learning.

I fail to understand the fact that, as far as I know, in the face of this crisis no one has yet reminded the ANC government of the colossal amount of public funds lost to corruption, which is just another term for theft. And I don’t know of a single vice-chancellor at any of our universities who has had the guts to take the students’ side in this debacle, and confront the governing party with its own dismal inability to stem the flood of money lost to corruption. Many of the VCs in the country were part of the struggle; have they forgotten the history of their own involvement? (If any VC has in fact supported the students, I apologise to them.)

In the Freedom Charter, which was adopted at the Congress of the People at Kliptown, Johannesburg, on June 25 and 26 1955, under the heading: “THE DOORS OF LEARNING AND CULTURE SHALL BE OPENED!” One reads:

“Education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children;

“Higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit … ”

More significantly, in 1994 the ruling party corroborated this in its election promises — it promised free education. This all seems a bit stale in light of the crisis unfolding at universities in the country at present, doesn’t it? Clearly the ANC has forgotten its own history. The question is why this is the case.

Naomi Klein casts considerable light on this in her book, The Shock Doctrine — The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Allen Lane 2007), specifically in the chapter on South Africa, tellingly titled “Democracy born in chains — South Africa’s constricted freedom” (p. 194-217), which is essentially an account of the manner in which the ANC won the political battle during pre-democracy negotiations, but lost the economic battle. In the present era of the dominance of the economic sphere over the political, it is no surprise that the latter has proved to determine the direction the country has taken under the ANC during the past 20-odd years.

One only realises how ironic it is that the ANC opted for the neoliberal model in 1994 when you read Klein’s account of Nelson Mandela, in 1990, penning a note in his prison cell to resolve a dispute concerning economics among his supporters on the outside. She quotes the two-sentence note in full (p. 195): “The nationalisation of the mines, banks and monopoly industries is the policy of the ANC, and the change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable. Black economic empowerment is a goal we fully support and encourage, but in our situation state control of certain sectors of the economy is unavoidable.”

Inconceivable, indeed! Notice the glaring irony, given the fact that the country has been in the grip of neoliberal capitalism for the last 20 years? Klein goes on to say that “ … it seemed that some people still believed that freedom included the right to reclaim and redistribute their oppressors’ ill-gotten gains. That belief had formed the basis of the policy of the African National Congress for thirty-five years, ever since it was spelled out in its statement of core principles, the Freedom Charter”.

She also reminds one (p. 197) that, given the principles of redistribution of wealth enshrined in the Freedom Charter, there had been agreement in the liberation movement that something somewhere between “Californian living standards for whites and Congolese living standards for blacks” would have to be found. And, she avers, if “there was a third path between communism and capitalism — a way of democratising the country and redistributing wealth at the same time — South Africa under the ANC looked uniquely positioned to turn that persistent dream into a reality”.

Her reasons for saying this include the world-wide support and admiration for Mandela, as well as the corporate boycott used globally by anti-apartheid activists, to which she adds the moral dimension of the struggle. The global agreement that corporations were partly responsible for perpetuating apartheid “gave the ANC the unique opportunity to reject the free-market orthodoxy of the day” (p. 198). Essentially the ANC had all the ammunition they needed to persuade the world that key areas of the economy had to be nationalised, as the Freedom Charter required, to ensure economic justice in South Africa. Klein believes that, if this route had been followed, Mandela’s status as a “living saint” would have given him the leeway to convince the International Monetary Fund and other financial bodies to write off the debt that the new government inherited from the apartheid state. Her next paragraph is crucial (p. 198):

“We will never know which of these forces would have proved more powerful. In the years that passed between Mandela’s writing of his note from prison and the ANC’s 1994 election sweep in which he was elected president, something happened to convince the party hierarchy that it could not use its grass-roots prestige to reclaim and redistribute the country’s stolen wealth. So, rather than meeting in the middle between California and the Congo, the ANC adopted policies that exploded both inequality and crime to such a degree that South Africa’s divide is now closer to Beverley Hills and Baghdad. Today, the country stands as a living testament to what happens when economic reform is severed from political transformation. Politically, its people have the right to vote, civil liberties and majority rule. Yet economically, South Africa has surpassed Brazil as the most unequal society in the world.”

The present student uprising across the country confirms Klein’s diagnosis in no uncertain terms. Instead of universities being public institutions funded from taxpayers’ money by the state, the corporatisation of universities — that is, their incremental subordination to the demands of the neoliberal regime — has meant the unavoidable increase of fees every year. Remember, because of capitalism’s debt-based character, and the consequent, unstoppable growth of the money in circulation through interest, inflation is built into the system. Further, because capitalism is closely tied to technological innovation, more and more workers — especially, but not only manual workers, who lack the skills required by the information-based economy — are excluded from employment.

What the protesting students instinctively know — I have heard a number of them on the radio refer to their chronic shortage of funds, and the debt incurred by loans — is that the neoliberal regime rules through the maintenance of unendurable debt levels among ordinary people. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have this to say about “The Indebted” in Declaration (2012, p. 9):

“Being in debt is becoming today the general condition of social life. It is nearly impossible to live without incurring debts — a student loan for school, a mortgage for the house, a loan for the car, another for doctor bills, and so on. The social safety net has passed from a system of welfare to one of debtfare, as loans become the primary means to meet social needs … debt controls you. It disciplines your consumption, imposing austerity on you and often reducing you to strategies of survival, but beyond that it even dictates your work rhythms and choices. If you finish university in debt, you must accept the first paid position offered in order to honour your debt … the indebted is an unhappy consciousness that makes guilt a form of life. Little by little, the pleasures of activity and creation are transformed into a nightmare for those who do not possess the means to enjoy their lives. Life has been sold to the enemy.”

I hope this intuitive awareness on the part of the rebelling students becomes a conscious, critically reflective awareness. Only then can the struggle against the neoliberal regime gain momentum. But it has begun — even the big banks are aware of the undeniable, and growing global inequalities that justify the fight against capitalism.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Peter Watermeyer Peter Watermeyer 23 October 2015

    Another Bravo Mr Olivier? We recall your Bravo on the Greek referendum: given the miserable choice between what they dont want and what they cant have, they chose the latter. And now they suffer. Bravo?
    Here we have your support for more gimme people. You are implicitly trashing those classes of people who create wealth – most have left these shores – surprise! – in favour of those that consume it. Surely it’s clear to all that the fundamental issue is that the resources available to support all these needy (i.e. gimme) people falls far short of the demand?
    Actually, this limited university problem is easily soluble. Only those disciplines that will create wealth should be prioritised in these desperate times. The scientists, engineers, medical practitioners- yes even lawyers. The people who can economically support society. We desperately need them. As for the humanities and suchlike, including philosophisers – well sorry. It would be very nice to support you people in times of plenty. But not now. We need all the money we can get to support productive people.

  2. Voldemort Rupert Voldemort Rupert 24 October 2015

    Aluta continua! As usual you have the most interesting view on what’s happenin out there.

  3. Bert Olivier Bert Olivier 26 October 2015

    Peter – you evidently cannot imagine anything better than the present, unjust, economic system. And don’t be too quick to dismiss the humanities – recall the way that philosophers paved the way for the French Revolution? Read Hardt and Negri, David Harvey and others, starting with the link that I gave to their book, Declaration, and you’ll get an idea of the steady build-up of resentment and anger at the injustices of neoliberal capitalism across the world. You might just learn something, and stop being so smug about the present system that favours the rich. You reveal your ignorance of history when you make such senseless statements.

  4. Maria Marquez Maria Marquez 26 October 2015

    @Watermeyer: Why don’t you concentrate on those points that are relevant to the present discussion, like the loss of billions of ZA Rand, the analysis of the country’s transition from apartheid by Naomi Klein, or H & N’s statement about debt? Targeting the humanities such as philosophy is an all-too-old strategy resorted to when defenders of the status quo cannot defend it against valid criticism any longer, so they/you try to shut them up. You are blind to the realities crowding in on the elites of this world.

  5. Peter Watermeyer Peter Watermeyer 27 October 2015

    Hello Maria!
    I agree that targeting humanities was a bit of a cheap shot! Some of my best friends are both human and philosophers – well they were friends! But maybe it was a justified riposte in the context – surely directed to draw attention to Bert’s chronic failure (and not just his own) to view actions by their possible consequences rather than motivation. The consequences in question being to a sectional demand on limited resources. And incidentally, are these protesting students not an elite, a small already privileged percentage of a lot of people with unfulfilled aspirations?
    You want me to address H & N? Bolshevists! Naturally they would not understand debt, which is a necessity for trade. Seizure and occupation is their message, but that only diminishes the production of resources.
    Nearly all I am hearing is a litany of complaints and aggression, very likely to lead to major social upset. Egged on by people who should know better. And then what? Is George Orwell now outdated?
    I do not defend the status quo – any status quo. I join those seeking the most effective means of improvement, which can only be addressed by a broad and sane analysis of possible consequences, rather than taking another emotional and undemocratic road to hell.

  6. Bert Olivier Bert Olivier 27 October 2015

    Richard – Thank you for your lengthy and well-argued reply. As usual, I find myself agreeing with most of what you write, but this time I have to say that the sheer ‘rationality’ of your argument reminds me a bit of what, if I recall correctly, W.T. Stace once said about Hegel’s idealist (i.e. rationalist) system in which he claimed to have captured reality in its entirety: It reminds one of an intricately designed medieval castle; beautiful to behold, with its turrets and pennants, its battlements, portcullis and moat, BUT…no one lives in it. Essentially this resonated with Kierkegaard’s criticism of Hegel, that Hegel does not take the concrete existence of living individuals into consideration – his system is a bloodless abstraction. In a way I can say the same about what you’ve written. For one thing – concrete experience contradicts what you say about debt. It is virtually impossible for especially young people today to build a life for themselves without entering into debt, and I would like to see you, or anyone else, adduce evidence to refute what Hardt and Negri show in Declaration, or, for that matter, what Deleuze argued long before them in Postscript to Societies of Control, that economic means of control take us beyond Foucault’s ‘disciplinary society’ to those of ‘control’. But – as both Deleuze, and Hardt and Negri knew/know – no matter how much such control through debt is a function of the very ‘rational’ economic system, with all its built-in ‘knots’ of accumulated wealth that imparts a hierarchical structure to economic/political rule today, what one can learn from Keirkegaard (and from Marx), is that sooner or later the concretely existing individuals on the ground reach (as Camus observed about ALL human beings) a “point of resistance”, where they will take no more oppression, whether it is economically based or politically based. In Multitude Hardt and Negri amass a list of all the global grievances against the present world order; and they are compelling: grievances about non-representation at various levels, about war, about ecological degradation caused by economic activities – the list goes on and on. These student protests must also be subsumed under those ‘grievances’, and the rationality of your analysis notwithstanding, ‘something’s gotta give’ if the economic pressure on them (and on other people) becomes unbearable. That’s the lesson of the primacy of concrete living conditions (what Kierkegaard called ‘existence’) over rational argument. Reason has its uses and its persuasiveness, but concrete existence trumps it every time. Life is, after all, NOT rational, much as we would like it to be; we spin our rational webs and try to catch life in it, but life will always break free of these puny attempts at controlling it.

  7. Richard Richard 27 October 2015

    @Bert, just a few thought below.

    I am not denying that many people are suffering, but I wonder whether there are more suffering now than previously? And, are they suffering more than they would be under a different social order? I agree that we are caught between catastrophe and disaster, but don’t know that this can be addressed by current “grievance” movements, or is necessarily even properly conceptualised by them. For instance, as you said in an earlier post, student fees could be financed from the money stolen through fraud and corruption. In other words, yes, fees were to increase, but the real issue behind it is fraud. Similarly, African countries have a great deal of poverty, as we know, but nobody addresses the issue of African family size. In other words, we address symptoms of things without looking at causes. And people blame “the system” because it is an easy victim. Blame the real culprits and one could well find oneself out of a job!

    First World population sizes are growing, through immigration from the Third World, largely. In other words, people are abandoning their own “sustainable” lifestyles (which are not sustainable without outside intervention), because of overpopulation pressures. Nobody talks about this, either. The lesson is that you can have very large families, but then accept that poverty will be the result. Or you can decamp to the First World. One cannot get out of a system more than one puts in.

    The economic problem we have is what it has always been: unless people have to exchange labour for the goods or services they desire, they simply do not value them. It seems a regrettable but inescapable aspect of human nature. Of course I understand that not all students have the fees to pay for their tuition, but then corruption-free devices (or properly policed devices) have to be installed to assist them.

    Had the communist systems installed in Europe and elsewhere succeeded, and people really were prepared to act responsibly and work together, there would be scope for dismantling capitalism. Unfortunately, all that happened was that bureaucracy took over from individual self-control and motivation. From speaking to former inmates of Eastern and Middle European countries in situ, they all agree that there were probably many fewer poor people – everybody had something – but on balance they were more repressive societies. None espoused a return to those systems, and they were by no means wealthy under the new order.

    Debt has always been with us. In smaller economies in the past – think of Rome under Hadrian – debt used simply to be forgiven from time to time, and the records destroyed. In our current system, where military and physical power has largely been replaced by economic power, this sort of action would not be possible without enormous and continuous social ructions every few years. I began my life in debt, my father did, and no doubt my grandfather did, too. There is nothing new in this. The difference now is that people who would historically have participated less in this system are now much more exposed to it, through the perceived necessity of certain goods. They have absorbed and been acculturated into middle-class economics. Is this really required? Should, say, somebody without much academic potential be taking on university debt?

    Lastly, a family member is in a very senior position within a financial company. One of his clients is what in South African parlance would be called a “previously disadvantaged” person. He made it quite clear that he did not engage in “the struggle” to come out of it poor. In fact, he said, “why do you think we did it in the first place?” Personal, individual, power is what drives so much of the discourse of what we think of as “progressive politics” and not any concern for the commonweal.

  8. Rod MacKenzie Rod MacKenzie 30 October 2015

    Hi Bert I loved the last three sentences of your response to Richard’s eloquent commentary, starting with “Reason has its uses and its persuasiveness…”

  9. Rod MacKenzie Rod MacKenzie 30 October 2015

    Professor Olivier Peter.

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