In South Africa, are student demonstrations a sideshow to the nation's real problems?

South African President Jacob Zuma is seen in Cape Town, South Africa, Feb. 12, 2015. (CNS photo/Pool via EPA)

This may not be a very politically correct statement, but there are days in South Africa now when one feels one is living in an asylum run by the patients. Chaos and intransigence in the universities is matched by absurd criminal charges against a minister of finance who may only be doing his job too well. In the latter case, President Jacob Zuma brushes off the crisis by asserting that he cannot do anything about the charges against Minister Pravin Gordhan because the law must take its course, lest South Africa become a “banana republic.” This is said as his government starts the process of withdrawing from the International Criminal Court.

South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority have made various attempts to indict Mr. Gordhan, a stubborn critic of the Zuma government. The charges change, but in every instance they range from the trivial to the absurd. The whole process seems a desperate attempt to remove the diligent minister from office so that he may be replaced by a Zuma-compliant figure who will sign checks to bail out South African Airways—run into the ground by a Zuma appointee—and seal the deal with the Russian atomic energy developer Rosatom for the construction of power stations that will effectively bankrupt the country.

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Meanwhile, the national university system is paralyzed by violent strikes. A protest movement called “Fees Must Fall” has since 2015 been calling for free tertiary state education (Most universities in South Africa are state-owned and state-subsidized, a legacy of our British past.) Classes have been disrupted, and violence and vandalism have occurred on most campuses. The movement, modeling itself on the Arab Spring, has taken a legitimate concern—the inability of talented poor students to afford an education, cuts in education subsidies and mismanagement of the student grants system—and turned it into what is becoming a rebellion against the state.

It has also become a convenient sideshow that offers a range of interpretations. Given that most university administrations and most South Africans sympathize with the idea of affordable tertiary education, the intransigence of the movement’s leaders invites the speculation that their true goal may be to render the state ungovernable. At the very least, the student unrest highlights the thousands of protests every year that reflect the failure of government and the ruling African National Congress party to deliver on its election promises. The A.N.C. had promised free tertiary education in its election campaign in 2013.

A real conspiracy theorist might speculate that the street movement exists to distract the public from bigger issues—the decision to withdraw South Africa from the jurisdictional requirements of the I.C.C., for example, or the attempts to undermine Mr. Gordhan and the recently retired public protector, Thuli Madonsela. Ms. Madonsela had led a campaign to clean up a government marked by corruption at the highest level, gross mismanagement and “state capture” of key national resources by business allies of the president himself, the India-based Gupta family.

While the media focused on the universities, Mr. Zuma and his cronies used their political influence to indict Mr. Gordhan. While police fire rubber bullets and stun grenades at students, Mr. Zuma prevents his former public protector’s report on state capture to be released while her newly appointed successor, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, goes on holiday in Venice.

In short, this is the season of lies, damn lies and bananas.

In Make or Break: How the Next Three Years Will Shape South Africa’s Next Three Decades (Cape Town: Zebra Press), published a few weeks ago, the lawyer and political analyst Richard Calland warns that the outcome of the Gordhan crisis may have a lasting impact on the country. If Mr. Gordhan and his growing number of allies both within the center and “sensible left” faction of the A.N.C. and within wider civil society succeed, South Africa has a chance of recovery. If Mr. Gordhan fails, the nation will be on the path to the banana republic status Mr. Zuma so cynically alluded to.

My sense is that when Mr. Zuma warns of a banana republic, he is being disingenuous. He and his associates too often appear to be seeking to turn this into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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