YOUTH DAY: students & workers unite in struggle

by Trevor Shaku

Socialist Youth Movement

National Convenor

The university and college students and pupils have demonstrated throughout history that they are forces of change in society. The latest waves of student struggles have vindicated this clearly, from the young women at Pretoria High School to #FeesMustFall. Moreover, the rich history of workers alliance with students is also long established.

The need for unity amongst all the oppressed has been well recognised by young people and workers through the history of struggle. Unity of workers in workplaces; unemployed, young and old-aged in communities; and the student and pupils in the education sector has been vital in for the struggles of the exploited and oppressed to make concrete gains.

Workplaces, communities and education institutions are the three theatres (centres) where the class struggle rages. In these theatres, those fighting for change are predominantly from a working class background, black, women and other oppressed/discriminated against groups, such as LGBTQI people. Revolutionaries are striving for unity of the oppressed and exploited masses.

Hence the workers and students have a historical record of collaboration not only in the struggle within the universities. The youth of 1970s aligned their struggles with those of the workers. They recognised the need to align their struggles precisely because they were confronted with one enemy – a system that was predicated on the back of exploitation of the working class, and political and cultural exclusion and oppression of black people.


Historical overview of workers-student alliance

The student movement through rejuvenated the political space in a number of ways. NUSAS made an important contribution in the rebuilding of the labour movement. NUSAS set up wage commissions in many campuses where it operated, and later helped form trade union organisations giving organisational expression to a workers’ movement which could feel its strength and power anew after long period of economic expansion. NUSAS assisted with the formation of MAWU, forerunner of today’s mighty National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA).

SASO’s resolution of the 3rd annual congress in 1972 led to it aiding the formation of the Black Allied Workers Union (BAWU). But it is SASO’s role in the broader political struggle that prepared the ground for the decisive historical turn of events that the 1976 Uprising represented.  Following the expulsion of Onkgopotse Tiro from Turfloop (today’s University of the North) for criticising the Bantu Education system during a graduation ceremony, many black students took a conscious decision not to return to university until all the expelled had been reinstated and to enter secondary schools to build a movement of opposition to Apartheid regime.

SASO was formed by black students who broke away from NUSAS in opposition to its liberal, gradualist approach of NUSAS. If SASO teachers played a significant role in radicalising the 1976 generation, the student themselves were further radicalised by the experience of the workplace, the only “university” the  majority of black students would ever graduate into.

The confluence of student radicalism and worker militancy prepared the ground work for the emergence of the most powerful trade union movement on the African continent – Cosatu.

Unfortunately Cosatu has abandoned its traditions of struggle, tying the workers to their exploiters in the tripartite alliance. Its affiliates have become ridden with corruption, as a careerist labour aristocracy proudly supports the ANC – the organisation that perpetuates the exploitation of the working class and cuts public spending.


Worker-Student Alliance in 2015/2016 –

One of the most important developments that featured in the recent waves of youth struggle that engulfed the higher education sector was student-worker unity. This worker-student unity reached the greatest heights ever achieved since 1994. The unity was a mutual recognition that the struggles of the students and workers cannot be fought in isolation, especially given the fact that the enemy is the same system: the system that is capitalist in content, neoliberal in form, neo-colonial in character and imperial in scope.

Found in the neo-liberal strategies that restructured the economy in the mid-1990s, cuts to education coincided with outsourcing as ways to boost profits at the expense of public expenditure. Outsourcing meant that workers real wages were lowered significantly; their benefits scrapped; and they were subjected to unfair labour practices with less job security. Meanwhile, the cuts to education expenditure combined with a volatile period in the capitalist economy meant that university managements turned to increasing tuition fees in order to cover the costs of operations.

The rising costs of living which slave wages of the workers could not keep up to, underpinned the inevitable revolt of the workers in this sector. The rising costs of education which hit significantly at the pockets of the middle-income earners meant that a period of resistance against the education cuts was and is still lying ahead.

The #FeesMustFall and #OutsourcingMustFall struggles saw the fruition of this unity. The unity transformed the campaigns into mighty movements which inflicted defeat on the neoliberal establishment in relation to wages, general labour practice and insourcing. Though the latter has been won in principle across the higher education sector, the struggle for implementation continues.

The students of 2015/2016 have retied the knot with the 1976 generation of students. In honouring not only the invitation of Blade and the government he serves (by refusing to provide free higher education and reneging on insourcing in all government departments), but that of history, the youth today is yet to confront neoliberal capitalism head-on.

Amidst the neoliberal onslaught on education rights, and basic services such as water, electricity and sanitation, we draw a conclusion that community and campus strikes will explode again in the future. The students of our time must strive for proper organisation and consolidation of our broad movements to fight the capitalist system.