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.


Bert Olivier

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...

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