South Africa: victory for student hunger strike against staff sackings

Micah Roshan Reddy reports from Wits University, South Africa, where a hunger strike by students against a proposed abusive sacking of 17 catering staff became an international campaign and secured a remarkable victory.

This year has seen some spectacular mass student protests, most notably in Chile and Montreal, but a less headline-grabbing action took place in recent days at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

During the night of Sunday, May 20th, a group of thirty-two Wits students prepared to occupy the University’s main administrative building and embark on an ‘indefinite hunger strike’ to protest the unfair dismissal of seventeen catering workers. Royal Mnandi, an outsourced company contracted by the University, fired the workers in April for what it claims was “gross insubordination” after they refused to be redeployed to another workstation.

Workers were aggrieved at not having been adequately consulted about a move that would have incurred increased transport costs for them. The incident led to days of concerted protest action in support of the sacked workers, which included a mass rally and a highly successful boycott of Royal Mnandi involving over two-thousand students. The hunger strike came as the culmination of this campaign.

Promising though the initial support for the workers was, as with any hunger strike this was a boldly ambitious undertaking; the potential for defeat having been highlighted by events at California State University just weeks before the Wits students began their fast.

At CSU, a week-long hunger strike by a dozen students was aimed at getting a five-year moratorium placed on soaring tuition fees, reducing executives’ excessive benefits and bloated salaries (which have continued to rise despite budgetary cuts and fee hikes), and opening up more ‘free speech areas’ on CSU campuses. As the week ground on management remained obstinate and the willpower of some activists started to wane. By the time the strike ended management had barely budged from its initial stance, conceding only to negotiate on the issue of ‘free speech areas’ where political canvassing is allowed.

At the outset of the Wits hunger strike it seemed as though things could quite easily end in the same way as at CSU, and it wasn’t clear wether or not Wits management would remain as aloof and uncompromising as it had in the past.

Predictably, a management communiqué issued on 22nd May cited contractual stipulations and legal obstacles as the reason for the university’s inability to get involved in matters that pertained to outsourced service providers and that were thus “outside the sphere of the University’s operations”.

Yet again, 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 under its employ and to whom management is thus not legally accountable.

A number of Wits academics, including Professor Lucien van der Walt of the Department of Sociology, have drawn attention to the effects of outsourcing and have attempted to place it in a national and global context. The protest at Wits represents a pip in a constellation of protests taking place at universities the world over, but a common systemic thread – cuts in university subsidies and the commodification of education – runs through them.

With a government macro-economic policy that stresses fiscal austerity and a heightened role for the private sector in tertiary education, it’s hardly surprising that Wits took the path that it did in the early 2000s, when management eagerly pushed through a major restructuring plan. A key component of that plan was the outsourcing of support services, and the rationale for that was the need to cut costs.

The effect was to transform the workforce into a cheaper, more exploitable, more ‘flexible’ one. Hundreds of workers lost their jobs, others lost benefits, had their wages slashed and found themselves in far more precarious positions of employment than before. Meanwhile, unions on campus were dealt a serious blow by the casualisation of work.

The Wits Workers Solidarity Committee – an alliance of workers, students and staff that coordinated the hunger strike – has gone some way towards filling the void left by the waning strength of unions on campus. In recent months the Committee has achieved incremental gains, helping workers claw back what they lost. It has put pressure on management and outsourced companies to improve working conditions, raised awareness about worker issues, highlighted cases of racial abuse and other transgressions against workers, and, crucially, helped instil a renewed confidence in workers and progressives on campus.

The hunger strike is the latest victory for workers – a real and symbolic one, small but nonetheless important. After management’s communiqué of 22nd May was rejected the strike continued, with support coming from an eclectic ideological mix of people – from anarchists to left-leaning liberals and radical members of the youth wings of the governing ANC-led alliance. By this time the foyer of the administrative building had become a vibrant hub of protest strewn with blankets, mattresses and placards.

As the week drew to a close, management backed down and agreed to intervene by holding negotiations with Royal Mnandi and student and worker representatives. 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 discernable change in management’s attitude marks a potentially significant precedent.

Wits activists have shown that management cannot get away with shrugging off its responsibility to students and those who work on campus, even if their paycheques don’t come from the University anymore.