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#NationalShutDown: Lessons from 1989 Tiananmen Square

I watched the evening news bulletin reporting how this current incarnation of the #FeesMustFall movement had spread to Fort Hare. I watched Fort Hare students, like students at other campuses, burn all manner of property. But what was odd in all that burning at Fort Hare, was the students throwing toilet paper all over the campus. Yes, toilet paper. This almost like a message to the system telling it to wipe itself off after it had off-loaded all this crap on the students. Perhaps all it was, was the student rage within boiling and reaching out for all and sundry to manifest itself.

In the Spring of 1989, university students in China launched massive protests at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The Chinese students had a list of seven demands, two of which were the increase of funding for education and provision of objective coverage in the media for their protests. The then Beijing municipality party-secretary and future party-leader, Jiang Zemin, censored all newspapers in Beijing. The 1989 students went on to stage a sit-in in Beijing lasting a number of weeks. The national leadership of China, led by Deng Xiaoping, was confounded and faced two choices. 1) Become conciliatory and thus concede to some of the student demands or 2) become more hard-line and use force to end the sit-in.

As the 1989 student rage ebbed and flowed, a number of problems started manifesting in the student protest.

Firstly, the internal politics of the governing party had a direct bearing on the resolution of the protest. Communist style political parties subscribe to Lenin inspired democratic centralism. However, there are always factions within the party with different views. This tendency for factions had profound impact in 1989. Much in the same way that the Central Party in China was fractured on how to resolve the 1989 crisis, I imagine the ANC here is also internally doing a lot of head scratching. This more so given that the leadership contest in 2017 is up in play. So whatever demands the students have these demands are inherently tied to the politics of the ANC leadership contest and who wants to appear as the problem-solver.

Students march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria October 23, 2015 Photo: M&G / Oupa Nkosi
Students march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria October 23, 2015 Photo: M&G / Oupa Nkosi

Secondly, with each passing week the 1989 student protest started getting mandate creep. In other words, buoyed by the popular support, they started demanding more things than those for which the march was originally conceived. This happened as other social organisations joined the protest. If you have any familiarity with human psychology you then know that such expansion breeds leadership contestation. In 1989 the contest literally became about who held the loudspeaker in the Square. This person then dictated the programme. In SA, the students are already getting ambitious and calling for the fall of this or that other thing. A sobering note from 1989 is that the 1989 protestors got almost no substantive gains from their weeks of protest toil.

Thirdly, protests live or die to the extent their narrative garners sympathy and captures popular imagination. The deployment of military force in 1989 was temporarily thwarted by the popular support the students had had from the populace. Thus in order to effect any form of securitized control over the situation, the Chinese government needed to reshape the narrative so as to malign the protest. They did this by asserting that the protest albeit starting off legitimate had become infiltrated with “bourgeois liberalism” agents. They further asserted that these liberals despised the Chinese way and wanted to overthrow the state — thus ultimately westernise China. China premier Li Peng used the politburo as a fertile ground to drive the narrative. In SA, the longer this protest goes on the more difficult it will become for the students to claim freedom from infiltration. Once government wins this war on narrative, it will then have carte blanche on re-inforcing authority.

Lastly, individual leaders can betray the cause. The China leadership endorsed a few 1989 leaders from the protesters and called them in for private negotiations. It is a matter of rumour that some of the leaders which later endorsed the party position in these private negotiations subsequently went on to have prosperous careers in China. This strategy of private meetings led to divisions within the student leadership. This happened on two levels. Firstly on whom the government chose to recognise for the negotiations. Secondly who it chose to weaken with prospect of individual prosperity and who to discard. These two tactics amongst other things sowed chaos with the direction of the 1989 protests. In SA, short of the students having a single unified mandate that any single individual can go defend without relying on single particular leaders then I fear once the ANC leadership is done with them they may utter Julius Malema’s words that they too feel like used condoms.

Early success should not beget a loss of discipline.


One Comment

  1. Jonathan Linde Jonathan Linde 26 October 2015

    I really enjoyed this piece, along with your other articles. Thanks!

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