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Field Notes

Unity in Action in South African Universities

Starting in October, 2015, a national uprising traversed the South African system of higher education. The biggest student uprising since the formal end of the apartheid regime in 1994, it brought up images of the 1976 Soweto riots and occupied the attention of the country. What has been called the #FeesMustFall and #EndOutsourcing or #OutsourcingMustFall movement shook South African politics and shifted the national agenda. After twenty years of African National Congress (ANC) government, the issues of the decolonization of the education system, students’ financial exclusion, and the exploitative nature of the externalization of work processes have been raised by the struggle of thousands of young students and outsourced workers across the country.

The early indications of student turmoil can be traced to the first semester of 2015, with the #RhodesMustFall campaign, in which the demand for the removal of statue of Cecil John Rhodes1 at the University of Cape Town became a symbol of the rejection of the continuing colonial legacy and of the reproduction of structural racism. A movement initially sparked in the traditional “white universities,” emerged in October and November in eighteen tertiary educational institutions. The movement shifted focus to material demands, with an increasingly bold and expansive nature, from no fee increase in 2016 and no registration fees, to the cancelation of all students’ debts, free education, and the insourcing of all work at the university.

The movement’s roots lie in the dialectical dynamic between material conditions and frustrated expectations. The South African tertiary education system is affected by well-developed international processes of commodification of knowledge and privatization of the public sector, the foundations of the currently hegemonic model of the “market university.” These processes have generated protests across the globe, from London to Santiago. In the last two decades, South African higher education institutions have experienced public expenditure cuts, making them increasingly reliant upon student fees and external private funding. Furthermore, private-sector companies have increasingly profited from providing services, such as cleaning and gardening, considered “non-core” within the university. In an extremely polarized society these conditions and the cost of living make access to tertiary education practically impossible for the majority of the black population. The deep inequality present in South African society is also directly reflected and reproduced in university employment relations and the super-exploitation of outsourced workers and the simultaneous fattening of the management class.

Outsourced workers’ exploitative labor relations, financial exclusion, and structural racism clash harshly with the expectations of South African people post-apartheid. Support for the ANC government, in power since the first democratic elections in 1994, has been based on an allegedly progressive program. The end of the apartheid regime was supposed to coincide with a process of democratization and redistribution of wealth—in other words, an emancipatory process for the black population, who had been looted for years under a racist and exploitative system. Ordinary people’s hopes have been disappointed by actual developments. Despite people’s loyalty to the ANC and their recognition of its role in the liberation movement, its hegemony is slowly—at moments rapidly—crumbling. The community protests for basic services since the 2000s, the Marikana massacre of August 2012, and now the students’ and workers’ movement within the university are breaking the legitimacy of the ANC government and its rainbow nation narrative.

Thousands of students and workers are demanding free education and better conditions for the black working class, opening up spaces for alternative visions of what a university and society could look like. The powerful unity between workers and students has been able to achieve crucial victories, including defeating the legitimacy of exploitative outsourcing practices. Much has been written about the student protests in the past months, but in this article, we focus on the struggles of workers and their decisive victory against privatization. We situate the victory in the context of the history of outsourcing at universities; we will end by pointing towards future possibilities for progressive struggles.2



In the global context of neoliberal cuts to the public sector, the University of Cape Town (UCT) engaged in extensive retrenchment and outsourcing of all “support services” in 1999. UCT was the pioneer of outsourcing in South African higher education institutions. The University of Witwatersrand (Wits) and others soon followed. This cemented one pillar of the corporate or market model of the university in South Africa.

Over the past decade, government subsidy has decreased from 49% to 40% as a component of total university income. In 2012 – 13, the government contributed only R 24 billion to universities, which amounts to only 0.76% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. As A. Nash argues, “Reduced per capita funding forced universities to seek funding or partnerships with business and industry and brought about a further reorientation of the curriculum towards the needs of capitalism. Expanding bureaucracies have been entrusted with performance review, marketing, and the like—reinforcing the constant propagation of the ideology of ‘excellence’.”The corporate university aims to be “competitive” and “efficient,” providing a service for customers/clients, often at the expense of values such as social redress, justice, and critical thinking.

The driving imperative behind the outsourcing of workers at universities was to cut costs. It was justified by the assertion that universities needed to focus on their “core business” of teaching and research. Thus “periphery” or “non-core” services (such as cleaning, catering, and gardening) were outsourced to private companies which were to deliver the same services at a higher standard and reduced cost. In this way public sector money is funnelled into the private sector to generate profits for businesses. Through this process of externalization, hundreds of workers were retrenched, lost nearly all their benefits, and had their wages cut in half. For example, at Wits, 613 workers were retrenched, fewer than half of whom were re-employed by private outsourced companies, and the wages of cleaners were cut from R2,227 to about R1,200 per month from one day to the next. Workers lost their medical aid and pension benefits as well as free tuition for their children.

Workers’ lived experiences under the regime of outsourcing are ones of precariousness, insecurity, and exclusion. Some workers interviewed stated: “We have to suffer first in order to get anything. We are drowning now into debt and lots of tax,” and “We are really struggling, even to get food.”

Outsourcing excludes workers from the university and further accentuates already existing class, race, and gender hierarchies in the university community and society generally. Workers were stripped of what limited place they had in the university community. For example, at Wits they were forced to use only one entrance to university property, were not to be seen in any public spaces during their lunchtime, and had to use only toilets designated for workers even though they cleaned all the toilets. In effect, black (usually women) workers were good enough to clean but not to be seen or heard. The boundaries of inclusion and exclusion drawn by neoliberal ideology reproduce and intensify existing lines of oppression and exploitation carried over from apartheid. Black workers previously exploited under apartheid are exploited and excluded in the name of “neutral”’ economic imperatives of excellence, efficiency, and competitiveness.


The Outsourced Organize

The process of outsourcing was resisted by workers, trade unions, and concerned members of the university community. However, in the process, workers were defeated and trade unions were effectively smashed at some universities. For example, at Wits, the immediate consequence of retrenchments was that the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU)4 lost over 400 union members (nearly half its membership), including three shop stewards. At UCT, NEHAWU lost its recognition agreement with the university, losing its power to negotiate with management. Universities became workplaces in which workers work alongside each other everyday but fall under different industrial sectors, have different employers, and different working conditions.

Since outsourcing, workers in different sectors across universities have moved in and out of different sectorial unions in search of protection and strength. At Wits, for example, workers decided to re-join NEHAWU in 2003 but NEHAWU failed to process their membership forms. In many universities, NEHAWU refused to sign up workers previously in NEHAWU because they were no longer considered part of the education sector. Subsequently cleaners at Wits tried a small independent union, the South African Commercial, Catering, and Allied Workers Union (SAACAWU), but the workers were victimized and the union failed to protect them adequately and they left again. In 2006, with a national cleaning sector strike looming, many joined a bigger union, the National Services and Allied Workers Union (NASAWU). The experience of workers moving in and out of trade unions in search of a home is not unique to Wits.

Workers experienced obstacles collectively organizing across sectors, with different employers and legal restrictions regarding where workers can and cannot meet, protest, picket, and strike. The university is not legally recognized as their “place of employment” so that they are supposed to strike and hold meetings with each other at their place of employment, which is often a company office tens of kilometers away from their workplace (protest there would have little disruptive effect). Furthermore, workers across companies have different places of employment thus breaking the potential for united action amongst workers. In response to these challenges, different organisational structures emerged across universities in attempts to build unity amongst workers in different sectors and to build solidarity for workers in the wider university community.

For example, at UCT individual supporters formed the UCT Workers Support Committee. Workers from different outsourced companies began to attend the meetings and the UCT Workers Forum was established. The forum aimed to unify workers at UCT regardless of their sector, their union, their employer, or their status. The central demand was aimed at UCT as the de facto employer: the reversal of outsourcing. Similar organisations appeared at different universities, for example the UJ Persistent Solidarity Forum and the Wits Workers Solidarity Committee. Student organisations also emerged specifically in solidarity with workers, for example the UCT Student Worker Alliance.

The key demands that workers have put forward to university managements over the years include: end outsourcing, a living wage, job security, end racial abuse, freedom to organize and protest, and reinstate benefits such as pension, medical aid, and free education. Campaigns around specific issues have won some limited victories. For example, UCT implemented a “top-up” wage, and at UCT and Wits workers won the right to organise, meet, and protest on university property.

In all these struggles it has been the self-organisztion of workers that pushed and forced university management to make concessions, often with the support of some students and academics. Unions, specifically NEHAWU, challenged outsourcing at the time of its implementation but subsequently failed to campaign against outsourcing. Unions have been inconsistent in supporting the self-organization of workers, sometimes supporting their demands and sometimes acting as obstacles, especially when workers’ self-organization threatened the control of union leadership. While there have been victories over particular demands, there has been little to no progress across universities in the demand to end outsourcing. Every time the demand was made, it was met with management’s logic of what is reasonable and possible: insourcing is not financially viable and will harm the quality of education afforded to students. This logic was finally broken, fifteen years later, in 2015.


The #FeesMustFall and #EndOutsourcing Campaigns

Although the fight against outsourcing has never stopped, in the second semester of 2015 it gained new impetus. In Johannesburg a new movement, “October 6,” produced a space of debate around the idea of a “decolonised public African university” and gathered together students, workers, and academics from the University of Johannesburg and the University of Witwatersrand. The movement decided to focus its first activity on fighting outsourcing, considered one of the most unacceptable and intolerable issues in the university community. With a nationwide call, the movement organized, on October 6th, the first national day of action against outsourcing that involved demonstrations and solidarity actions in several universities across the country. The organization of October 6 turned out to be important in putting outsourcing on the agenda of the wider student movement that started just one week later.

University workers’ demonstration against outsourcing.

On October 14, 2015 the students of the University of Witwatersrand came out in hundreds, and later thousands, against the decision of the University Council to introduce fee increases (of between 10% – 12% according to each faculty) for 2016. After being defeated in the institutional arena, in which the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) are a powerless minority, the SRC decided to mobilize the university community so the real majority could be heard. A day of direct action that interrupted university activities by blocking gates and entrances with bodies soon spread to calls for national shutdowns of universities under the slogan “Fees Must Fall”. From the very first day, workers came out in solidarity with students and in support of their demands. As one student described, from day one, “At the gates of our university they [workers] stood steadfastly with us, without fear.” 5

 While in the University protesters were demonstrating against fee increases, simultaneously but independently, in another part of town, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), a progressive Trade Union expelled in 2014 from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) federation,6 organized a protected strike against corruption under Section 77 of the Labour Relations Act.7 Thousands of workers and community members demonstrated in the streets of Johannesburg. Some of them, following the demonstration, joined the protest at Wits University. In the coming weeks, community organizations continued to support the university protests.

October 14 represented the first day of the most important student movement in post-apartheid South Africa. University workers, and in particular outsourced workers, turned out to be crucial actors in the movement, but their centrality developed over time. Workers took action from the first day in solidarity with students despite their vulnerability, risking being disciplined and even losing their jobs. Workers at Wits initially took extended lunch breaks in order to be part of the students’ activities—essentially they were going on unprotected strikes for a few hours each day. Later workers would strike for whole days, calling on students to “take them out” of their workplace as a tactic so that they were less likely to be disciplined. Despite their participation, in the first week workers’ issues were still marginal in the movement’s demands. On October 17th, Wits students and management signed a document that went as far as protecting workers against discipline and victimization for participation in the protest. An internal struggle within the students’ movement took place in order to put workers’ issues at the center of the agenda and to not allow these issues to be optional. Eventually, on October 22nd, when thousands of students, workers and communities marched in solidarity to the Luthuli house (the headquarters of the African National Congress) in Johannesburg, the memorandum delivered from the movement consisted simply of demands for no fee increase, free education, and an end to outsourcing.

The process of making the demands of workers central depended upon the commitment and bravery of workers themselves. As one worker leader observed, “I think the students realized that it was not only about the tuition fee increase. Students realized that workers were there all the time with them and that there should be a gain for workers too. They said ‘We can’t allow this exploitation of our parents to go on. This outsourcing must end.’8  Emblematic, for instance, was the development of the movement in the University of Johannesburg where without workers’ mobilization it would have had a shorter and less significant lifespan. In U.J., #FeesMustFall was delayed by the students’ representative elections. Political students’ organizations were more concerned about competing for institutional positions than about participating in a growing national movement. Independent students and individual members of political organizations, eventually disrupted SRC elections and university activities on October 22nd.

On October 23, #FeesMustFall called a national day of action and demonstration in Pretoria in front of the Union Buildings (the official seat of the South African government and also the offices of the President). The park in front of the Union Buildings became a battlefield between police and more than ten thousand students and workers from all over the country. The fences of the Union Building were pushed over as students attempted to get into the building and disrupt the private stakeholder meeting that the President was holding. Students were met by a barrier of police and were eventually dispersed with rubber bullets, stun grenades, and tear gas. President Zuma was meant to address the crowd but instead announced to the media a 0% fee increase for 2016 as well as various bureaucratic commissions and task teams to study other issues raised, such as student debt. This was the first national victory that students forced the government to concede, but it was simultaneously an attempt by the government to suppress students’ anger and demobilize the movement. From then on the movement faced harsher levels of repression by university management and the state, and ostracism by the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA).9 PYA embraced a political position against a movement that was threatening the stability of the SA government by stressing its blatant contradictions. At the same time the ANC tried to co-opt the 0% victory as an ANC victory.

Despite the 0% fee increase victory, thousands of students across the country refused to return to class because a commitment by the government to free education and an end to outsourcing was yet to be won. In the following days, first UCT management and then Wits management were forced to commit to end outsourcing, in principle, and to improve working conditions, by the actions of militant workers and students who continued to put their bodies on the line. A student stated: “The struggle of outsourced workers and the struggle of students are inherently intertwined. Turning your back on the vulnerable, oppressed, and marginalized in society is a cowardly act. On our campuses, the most oppressed are the outsourced workers.”10 At the same time, U.J.’s #FeesMustFall was struggling to survive under harsh pressure, until the militancy of the workers came on the scene. On November 2, hundreds of U.J. outsourced cleaners started a “tools down” (a strike), sparked by the transfer of workers from one outsourced company to another without any consultation with workers, treating them as packages in the hands of company managers. The workers’ demands spread to address their working conditions generally and to an end to outsourcing. The pre-existent outsourced workers’ structures, strengthened by the widespread popularity of the movement and by the struggle of fellow outsourced workers across the country, marched for the first time in the history of U.J., within the premises of the university (despite its legal prohibition because the university was not their “place of employment”). This was the start of an almost three-week-long unprotected strike that ended with an agreement that committed U.J. management to end all outsourcing contracts by June 2017, no victimization, dismissal, or transfer of workers who have participated in the protests, and a temporary wage increase of R 1,000 (40% of their previous wage).

The #EndOutsourcing Campaign reached astonishing achievements in a relatively short space of time with universities across South Africa committing in principle to end outsourcing, including the University of Cape Town, University of Witwatersrand, and University of Johannesburg. In 2016, the struggle was taken up under the banner of #OutsourcingMustFall and victories were won at the University of Pretoria and Tshwane University of Technology. Battles continue to be waged at the University of Western Cape and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, among other universities. Although the details of the agreements are different in each place, what emerges from all of them is the political defeat of outsourcing labor relations in the universities. The legitimacy of such labor practices, which stood for 15 years and allowed the private sector to profit from a high level of exploitation of workers and the exclusion of workers from the university community, finally came to an end. Outsourced workers and students fought side by side, and continue to fight, across the country to make the practice of outsourcing in South African universities an experience of the past, framing it in the wider struggle of decolonization of the university as a public good that is still to be won.


Making History in a Few Weeks: Altering Horizons of Possibility

Many lessons can be learned from the struggle of South African outsourced workers. The #EndOutsourcing movement came onto the national scene as an unexpected storm and brought results that were previously considered impossible. But this struggle did not come from nowhere. As shown above, the fight against outsourcing has deep roots in years of workers’ organizing and their consistent demands for an end to outsourcing.

What was fought for for fifteen years become achievable in a few weeks of struggle. Time in politics does not have a steady, constant pace. History can be made in a few days. What made the clock run fast this time can be traced to a series of factors.

Just before #FeesMustFall started, the issue of outsourcing was again put on the agenda by the October 6 movement. South African universities had also become a space of struggle and new possibilities since the beginning of 2015. A new sense of political urgency spread among students, lowering their level of tolerance for the exploitation, inequality, and institutional racism that stripped the dignity of black students and workers. Students recognized outsourced workers’ conditions as intolerable and rejected the purely economic logic of the management. The human dignity of hundreds of black mothers and fathers working on the universities’ premises was no longer tradable. As one student stated: “Outsourcing concerned us because it is our mothers, because it is our fathers, because it is our brothers and sisters that are suffering from this, that are sitting in the location in the black ghettos and are hit by this.”11 These factors resulted in a deepening of solidarity between students and workers. Workers put their bodies on the line in response to students’ calls for support. In return, students refused to halt their protests before winning insourcing. The solidarity and unity in action between students and workers significantly altered what was possible.

Another important aspect was the disrespect for dictated “rules of engagement.” A range of protest actions were utilized, predominantly in the form of direct action: disruption, shutting down campuses, occupations, mass mobilisations, and street demonstrations and marches. The usual institutional channels of negotiation and requesting permission for actions from the state and university were disregarded, making the movement difficult to control and contain. These practices made workers more confident in taking action without authorization, and in demanding no consequences for their actions, in terms of disciplinary measures. A worker leader argued that “unions worry too much about the law. If you go on strike they want to stop you because you are not protected by the law but the students act now, they don’t care what they law says. So I think that’s how we can be successful in our struggles.”12 Workers stepped beyond the laws and procedures that limited their actions, emboldened by the students to demand recognition of their place in the university. Students and workers, the majority of the university community, made their own laws in action.

From the outset, there were constant attempts at building a more democratic movement. The importance of mandates and mass meetings were emphasized, secret meetings were rejected, transparency and accountability were demanded. University managements were forced to negotiate in front of hundreds of students and workers. Bureaucratic and official structures were rejected. This assisted in preventing co-option by the ANC and bureaucratic students’ and workers’ structures. Workers rejected any negotiations by trade union representatives that did not take a direct mandate from them. Many times trade unions became obstacles to workers’ self-organization and independent workers’ committees drove the struggle. These processes and principles enabled the maintenance of political determination until the end.

Many have tried to claim credit for this victory—management claims it as their own ethical position against exploitation of workers and political parties and trade unions have tried to co-opt the struggle—but workers, with thousands of students alongside them, demonstrated militancy in putting their jobs and their bodies on the line. Workers demonstrated high levels of political maturity in understanding that this time demanded “all-in” to win. Repression by private security, arrests by the police for illegal gatherings, co-opted trade unions that tried in many cases to assuage the situation—none of these could not stop the protests. Workers struck until the end and they won.

These factors enabled an important achievement for the South African labor movement, and a victory against the privatization of the public sector.


Looking to the Future

The struggle against outsourcing can be considered a significant workers’ victory but the movement cannot lower its guard. The process of insourcing needs to be followed closely to avoid a process of implementation that will divide workers and undermine their demands for improved working conditions. University managements and private companies are already trying to take the political reins of the process, marginalizing grassroots democratic organization, and trying to impose limits on the victory, for example by saying that only certain categories of workers can be insourced. The only way to defend this victory is to continue the struggle for an alternative model of the university, a decolonised public African university. The struggle for free education continues in 2016.

The battle against exploitative labor relations and for a decent life in post-apartheid South Africa does not stop at the university’s boundaries. The defeat of outsourcing and privatization has to be extended to other sectors of the South African economy. Attempts to link up with struggles beyond the university have to be made. Currently, outsourced municipal workers in Pretoria have embraced the demands of university workers and are now fighting against outsourcing and for a living wage. In a period in which the mantra is “there is no alternative to the pressures of the capitalist global economy,” the victory of South African outsourced workers shows the global working class that reversing the processes of neoliberalism is still possible.

 During the national day of demonstration in front of the Union Buildings in Pretoria, a banner proclaimed: “In 1994 you sold our parents a dream, we are here now for the refund!” Black students and workers are fed up with empty promises and lack of fundamental changes since the end of apartheid. They see their expectations crashing against realities of exploitation, inequality, financial exclusion, and institutional racism. With #FeesMustFall and #EndOutsourcing/#OutsourcingMustFall an intolerable reality was laid bare: there is still a huge repayment to be claimed.

  1.  Cecil John Rhodes (1853 – 1902) was a British businessman, mining magnate and politician in South Africa. He served as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896. He believed in the project of British imperialism and “founded” Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. The University of Cape Town is built on Rhodes’s estate.
  2. The article mainly draws from experiences at the University of Witwatersrand and the University of Johannesburg, where the authors are based.
  3. “Beyond Monuments: How Do We Truly End the Legacy of Rhodes?,” Amandla 39 (2015), pp. 25 – 26.
  4. The National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU) is the largest public sector union in South Africa and is affiliated to the Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU). COSATU is part of the Tripartite Alliance, with the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party.
  5. “Student Uprising,” Amandla 43/44 (2015).
  6. In 2013, after the Marikana massacre, NUMSA decided to withdraw support for the ANC and SACP and to explore an alternative Workers Party. In the following year, NUMSA was expelled from COSATU on contested grounds.
  7. Under Section 77 “every employee who is not engaged in an essential service or a maintenance service has the right to take part in protest action” called by a registered Trade Union.
  8. (See
  9. T. Luckett, &  D. Mzobe) “#OutsourcingMustFall: The Role of Workers in the 2015 Protest Wave at South African Universities.” Global Labour Journal 7:1 (2016).
  10. The Progressive Youth Alliance is composed of the African National Congress Youth League, the Young Communist League of South Africa, and the South African Students Congress.
  11. “Student Uprising,” Amandla 43/44 (2015).
  12. Ibid.
  13. (T. Luckett, &  D. Mzobe) “#OutsourcingMustFall: The Role of Workers in the 2015 Protest Wave at South African Universities.” Global Labour Journal 7:1 (2016).


Francesco Pontarelli

FRANCESCO PONTARELLI is a Ph.D. candidate in the Sociology Department of the University of Johannesburg, attached to the South African Research Chair in Social Change. He is exploring different forms of workers’ and social movement organization across the world and he is part of the OustsourcingMustFall campaign at UJ.

Thembi Luckett

THEMBI LUCKETT is a Ph.D. candidate in the Wits Sociology Department, exploring hope and utopianism in everyday working-class lives. She has worked for trade unions in the clothing, textile, and agricultural sectors and is currently a member of the Wits Workers Solidarity Committee.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2016

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