FeesMustFall: horizontalism and the continuity of social movements
by Thato Mokoena | Amandla! Issue No. 66 | October 2019
2015 marked an historic moment in the history of South African universities. The demand for greater access to university crystallised in the opposition to the fee increment at Wits and other universities. We are reminded of the gravity of the moment and the unity of students at that moment by images of thousands of students marching, bearing placards demanding a 0% increase, demanding free education. Images of swaths of students sitting at the Concourse at Wits, demanding that they be heard. And of course the iconic hashtag #FeesMustFall. All these images are etched in our memories.
Today, however, it is 2019. As the Department of Higher Education prepares to announce the 2020 fee increment, there is no #FeesMustFall movement to oppose it or to engage it in any meaningful manner. This is evidenced by the increases of 2017 and 2018 which did not even cause commotion among the student community.
The question then is, where is the movement, when the issue that gave rise to it is still prevalent?
Much has been written about the FeesMustFall movement, its ideology, its failures and achievements. Unfortunately, unlike many contemporary movements, there is almost no trace of it as a movement. It seems to be something of the past, with its “leaders” having moved on to other things. It is not present to oppose continuing and emerging practices that could lead to university spaces becoming even more inaccessible.
This is a sympathetic critique highlighting some of the practices that may have led to the movement’s own dwindling.
We are all leaders
The ideology of horizontal leadership is one that has its history in the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s. It came about because women in the ranks of the movement felt excluded from the inner circle of leadership. So in an attempt to foreground the experiences of women in the movement, they abstained from the use of formal/hierarchical forms of leadership. Another movement that espoused this attitude to leadership was the OccupyWallStreet movement, which famously proclaimed, ”We are all leaders”.
In the student movement, this ideology was informed by the frustration that students in general were having with hierarchical forms of representation and mediation. Students were suspicious of those they had elected to represent them in general i.e. the SRC. They were suspicious of having their grievances being mediated through representation by any elected leader from the movement.
There was also the issue of partisanship of the people elected into formal bodies of leadership. The movement tried to define itself outside political parties. This further delegitimised forms of formal leadership. When mediators were elected, there would be no fixity or permanence. Nor was there any freedom to articulate anything that might be strategic ”in the moment” but was not agreed upon in the mass meetings.
This ideology was important in that it did not take hierarchical expressions of leadership for granted. It opened the movement to the possibility of redefining leadership in new ways or at least reminding leaders that it is not about clout and prestige. This would have been a worthwhile and apt contribution to the question of leadership in our society.
However, in many ways the movement never moved past the point of suspicion around the question of leadership. Even when leaders clearly emerged among us, the movement was incapable of prescribing and defining their role and position in relation to the greater mass of students. We therefore had leaders who were ultimately beyond reproach.
This is highlighted by two incidents. The first is when the women in the movement felt underrepresented and suppressed in the leadership that had emerged “organically”. Women could not simply speak to the leaders and demand that women representation be compulsory. They had to organise themselves separately as women. And still they were met with accusations of being a distraction to the movement.
The second instance took place in January 2016. The student leaders had gone to meet with the Department of Higher Education about our demands. Government did not concede to many of the demands. In an interview outside the venue of the meeting, SRC president Nompendulo Mkhatshwa was asked what she made of the Government’s suggestions. She said, “We’ll have to go back and discuss it; we’ve only just heard it”. The other leaders rejected the call at the very instant they were interviewed, before any meeting had occurred.
De facto leaders
In his book about contemporary social movements Tweets and the Streets, Paolo Gerbaudo argues that communicators in contemporary movements become the de facto leaders. Those who are privy to and in charge of dispensing information about the issues, the mobilisation and the plan of action become the de facto leaders.
While they are “soft leaders”, they are responsible for setting the scene in which the mass of students engage. To communicate is to organise and thus to lead. This logistical fact of leadership emerges from being Facebook admin, SRC or Chairperson of EFF Student Command. To ignore it in favour of a categorical commitment to horizontalism fails to hold those who communicate accountable for the responses that they deliberately garner.
Importantly, the attempt to be non-partisan was largely a failure because there were few accountability measures for those individual leaders at the level of the mass meetings. Instead, they were accountable to the offices into which they were elected, whether it was SRC, the ANC-aligned PYA or the EFF. As a result, much of the disagreements had a party political tinge to them.
I am interested in sustained pressure from future movements of this kind. That’s why it is important that failing to engage the kind of leadership “we” want means that people are free to simply not commit to or take responsibility for the movement – in theory, they never led them. So the movement fizzles out.
This must not be read as saying that they were not committed leaders. The horizontal structure is a double-edged sword. It absolves those who lead from responsibility. But it will also punish them severely if they try and point out that they are in fact leading those movements, or at least providing the conditions under which such movements can occur.
Mass meeting the only forum
The lack of commitment from the de facto leaders came from the fact that the mass meeting was the only forum for decision making. It often means that the movement cannot survive beyond the centre of occupation. It was the same in the case of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. Wael Ghonim tweeted, after the announcement of the removal of Mubarak, “Mission accomplished. Thanks to all the brave young Egyptians. #Jan25”. This demobilised the people and gave them the idea that they could go home. And they did. But they soon found out that the mission was not in fact complete. However, according to horizontalism, Ghonim is not responsible for their going home. But they are gone.
The same goes for FeesMustFall. Because the mass meeting reigned supreme, the movement relied on the constant availability of the Concourse for any kind of offensive to be waged against exclusionary practices of the university. Then public gatherings involving more than 15 people were banned and there were no mass meetings. The movement could not organise itself and strategise in any other place because of its categorical commitment to horizontalism. This led to the inevitable descent into chaos, in which even those who were fully committed had not a single clue what the strategy was, beyond the sustenance of resistance – no matter how disjointed.
Today there is no FeesMustFall movement. I do not wish to suggest that FeesMustFall is a failure or that it achieved nothing. I write this as someone who is deeply invested in the promotion of access to higher education and was involved in FeesMustFall. But the movement’s commitment to horizontalism, and its reluctance to discuss other new forms of leadership that are not foregrounded in hierarchy and selfish interests of the leader, made it susceptible to crumbling at the slightest change in conditions i.e. bans on gathering.
What of the Future?
The chance may have passed for #FeesMustFall, but there are lessons to be learnt from it and from other contemporary movements. For instance, BlackLivesMatter shares the same ideological position of horizontalism. But it also recognises the importance of organising around the issues the movement tries to address. For this reason, they do not have a National Leadership structure but have chosen a more decentralised form of organising themselves. It is not perfect but they are present in much of the grassroots issues that affect Black Americans to this day.
The prospects of a sustained opposition to exclusion from higher education look grim, especially after the hope imbibed by FeesMustFall. The leaders have moved on to other things. But the movement made seemingly insurmountable achievements and provides us with invaluable lessons about contemporary movements.
Thato Mokoena is student activist at Wits and was the Wits SRC Transformation Officer from 2016 to 2017.