This year has borne witness to some staggeringly large student protests, with over 200,000 recently taking to the streets of Montreal in opposition to tuition fee hikes. But a less spotlighted action took place last week at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. On Sunday 20 May, a group of thirty-two Wits students bedded down in the stark, cold foyer of the university’s main administrative building and began an ‘indefinite hunger strike’ to protest the unfair dismissal of 17 catering workers.
The workers had been fired by Royal Mnandi – an outsourced service provider contracted by the university – after they refused to abide by a company decision to redeploy them. Workers were angered by what they felt was inadequate consultation in matters that effected them. They claimed that the move would have meant an increased transport burden for them, which would have further stretched their already thinly spread wages.
The incident led to days of concerted protest action in May in solidarity with the sacked workers. A mass rally and a highly successful boycott of Royal Mnandi involving over 2,000 students, many from working class backgrounds, preceded the hunger strike.
By the time students were preparing to go hungry the company had still not budged and Wits management, staying true to character, absolved itself from any responsibility to protect the dignity and rights of contract workers on campus. In its response to the hunger strikers management gave the convenient and predictable excuse that its hands were tied because of legal obstacles. It claimed that it had no place getting involved in a labour dispute between an outsourced company and the workers of that company.
As in the past, Wits management was attempting to abdicate its moral responsibility to those who ensure the smooth functioning and general wellbeing of the university, but who are not technically under its employ and to whom management is thus not legally accountable. Of course, this is part of the reason Wits outsourced labour in the first place.
Over the last decade Professor Lucien van der Walt and several other Wits academics have attempted to highlight the links between outsourcing at South African universities and developments in the national and global political economy. As van der Walt’s work has shown, outsourcing at Wits is symptomatic of successive ANC-led governments’ neoliberal macro-economic policies, starting with GEAR (Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy) in 1996, and continuing with the launch of the not-so-paradigm-shifting NGP (New Growth Path) in 2010.
GEAR’s emphasis on fiscal austerity and its vision of a more ‘competitive’ and market oriented higher education sector led to cutbacks in public spending for universities. Small wonder then that in the early 2000s, despite serious opposition, Wits management under vice-chancellor Colin Bundy pushed through a major restructuring plan, a key component of which was the outsourcing of “non-core” services to cut costs. It was also assumed, quite unproblematically, that this would equate to greater efficiency. The effect of outsourcing was to reduce the labour force and transform it into a cheaper, more exploitable, and more ‘streamline’ one.
Of course, the real beneficiaries of outsourcing at Wits have been the owners, shareholders and executives of the contract companies, many of whom are closely connected to high profile politicians and key policy makers who shape and drive government strategies like GEAR.
The case of Mvelaserve, the holding company of Royal Mnandi, is telling in this regard. In 2010, two individuals with intimate connections to leading government figures joined the Mvelaserve board when it unbundled from the Mvelaphanda Group, headed by ANC bigwig Tokyo Sexwale, and listed separately. Flora Mantashe, the wife of ANC secretary general and former trade union leader Gwede Mantashe, was one. The other person to join was Nozuko Mbalula, wife of then Deputy Police Minister Fikile Mbalula.
So as a handful of businesspeople reap profits from outsourcing on campus, for workers it has come at great cost. Hundreds lost their jobs at Wits, others have lost benefits and had their wages slashed. Job security has been threatened by the redrawing of contracts, making them temporary and flexible and giving employers greater scope to punish “troublesome” workers who assert their rights. The casualisation of labour gave employers the upper hand and dealt a serious blow to trade unionism. For workers and their allies on campus, the whole experience of outsourcing was a highly demoralising one.
But the Wits Workers Solidarity Committee – an alliance of workers, students and staff that coordinated the hunger strike – has gone some way towards filling the gap left by the partial retreat of unions from campus. In recent months the committee has painstakingly managed to achieve some important gains, helping workers claw back some of what they lost. It has put pressure on management and outsourced companies to improve working conditions, raised awareness about worker issues and spoken out against draconian employer tactics and the complacency of university management.
The hunger strike is the latest victory for workers, with encouraging support coming from a wide range of political ideologies – from anarchists to left-leaning liberals and radical members of the youth wings of the governing ANC-led alliance. As the week ground on the foyer of the occupied administrative building had become a vibrant hub of protest strewn with blankets, mattresses, placards and pamphlets.
But as students were growing progressively weary and hungry there was still no sign that the company would reconsider its actions or that management would engage with the issue of dismissed workers in any meaningful way. This state of affairs prevailed until, finally, as the week drew to a close, management buckled. In a rare show of goodwill, management officials came down from the 11th floor of the Senate House building and personally told the strikers that they would agree to open negotiations with the company over the matter of the dismissed workers.
It remains to be seen what will transpire at the negotiating table and whether or not the dismissed workers will be reinstated. But for now the discernible change in management’s attitude marks a potentially significant precedent. Wits activists have reminded management of its responsibility to students and workers, and they have shown that companies will not be allowed to get away with unfair and heavy-handed labour practices.
The protest at Wits was a tiny but nevertheless important blip in a vast constellation of student resistance taking place at universities the world over; a constellation with a common thread – cuts to university subsidies and the commodification of education – running through it. We may not be seeing a repeat of 1968 quite yet, but the rumblings are there and the protests are likely to intensify as economic woes deepen and universities are increasingly commercialised and made inaccessible to the poor and working class youth. The recent student upheavals in Chile, which has one of the most market-driven and unequal higher education systems in the world, may be a taste of things to come.
Micah Reddy is a former student at Wits University, currently based at the university doing research. He is an intern at the Afro-Middle East Centre. He writes in his personal capacity.