The Shimla Park protest at the University of the Free State (UFS) in 2016 and the litter strewn around on the UFS Thakaneng bridge in 2019 during the recent worker’s protest is an important part of a protest because it forces people to engage with the contentious issue directly. Protesting revolves around creating discomfort in order to indicate a major flaw in the status quo. Just as the workers used their physical bodies to disrupt the rugby game proceedings in 2016, so too they have used their work – or refusal to work – as a medium to communicate their demands and the realities of their exploitative working conditions.
Outsourcing is a struggle that unknowingly to most South Africans, dates back to 2001. Service staff employees at Wits University had initially started the conversation around the unethical effects of outsourcing however the engagement only gained traction during the #FeesMustFall movement, most notably because at various institutions a supportive interface between the struggles of service staff and students was beginning to manifest.
Universities have two main functions, academics and non-core functions. Support staff like cleaning and grounds staff comprise a cohort of the non-core functions and in order to keep operating costs low with respect to the aforementioned workers, outsourcing was integrated into the institutional space. Outsourcing is a practice that legitimises the dehumanization of service staff employees not only through their meagre earnings but also by the harsh working conditions they are expected to endure. Due to the fact that they are not directly employed by the universities, they are not entitled to employee benefits, the most vital being; medical aid coverage, living wage, study subsidies among others. The most devastating effect of outsourcing has been the effective way the practice has ensured that the workers are completely isolated from representation within the university.
It is imperative to bare in mind that within institutions of higher learning, the space ensures that the only way to have ‘ones voice heard’, is to have governance representation. This is ultimately why student leadership structures at various levels and across various departments, exist; to ensure that not only are the concerns of students represented and expressed within the space but that the complexities of those concerns find expression. Students, lecturing and research staff and to a lesser degree, support staff are represented within the bureaucratic procedures of the institution. This however is not the case for outsourced staff. Outsourced staff may not, according to their contractual agreements, be granted a formal representation platform for expression within the university. In light of this we cannot deny that outsourced workers have no voice thus relegating their position within the UFS as very much slave-like.
Employees at Unisa have recently been insourced and now receive higher salaries, but most importantly, a staff member told the Mail & Guardian that the best part about being insourced into the institution is knowing that a representative from the service staff cohort will be granted a seat on the university council. “It is easy for people in boardrooms to take decisions not knowing how they will affect people on the ground. Our sole purpose now is to take the boardroom to the level of the workers.”
Considering the above, what choice do the most exploited constituency within our UFS institutional space have other than to disrupt the functionality of the university and university activities like Shimla Park? Not only does it indicate a desperation to be recognised and acknowledged, but it also proves that the university undoubtedly operates off of the backs of the service staff. Through a shut down or disruption the workers are attempting to demonstrate this in a tangible manner; power to keep the university merely operating resides in the hands of the workers and with such power, it is immensely difficult to understand why universities continue to handle the concerns of outsourced staff as irrational and worthy of disregard.
So what is the difference between Eckhard Binding’s actions in the video involving the two Economic Freedom Fighters organisation members and the violence exerted on the bodies at Shimla Park? Blatantly put; nothing. Both Binding’s actions and those of spectators during the violence that transpired on the Shimla Park field in 2016, are informed by the same privileged disregard for the reality of black pain, particularly the pain felt by the black disenfranchised. Though Binding may not be depicted in the video physically assaulting anyone, by picking up the litter, the only symbol of protest the workers had left to resort to, he is ensuring that the realisation of rights of a whole contingent of people is rendered meaningless and worthy of scorn in South Africa’s public court of opinion.
What mainstream media has done with both Shimla Park and the latest video involving Eckhard Binding, is manipulatively cast the attention away from the workers and onto the spectacles that have come out as a result of the process of trying to find expression and support for their concerns. South African media coverage about the violence on the Shimla Park field ensured that the entire country became fixated on the isolated incident, resulting in a nation-wide amnesia of the reasons that actually informed the presence of workers on the field in the first place. The same pattern appears to be playing itself out once again. Due to the fact that mainstream media tends to publish stories devoid of nuanced contextual engagement and explanation; currently the nation is applauding and donating money to someone who is defecating on the workers efforts to have their humanity recognised. Student media at the UFS has picked up on the same sensationalist thread by inviting Binding onto their radio platform for an interview recently, amplifying his voice even more; yet amidst the entire duration of the workers protest, neither a representative from the UFS workers student forum or a worker themselves was invited to share their narrative.
At the moment, Eckhard Binding’s ignorance and white privilege is becoming the core focus of the narrative and again the plight of the workers is a sacrificial lamb offered up in order to provide white privilege a stage off of which to play the role of the victimized.
As students who stand by the workers, we cannot allow this to happen. We need to urgently grab a hold of the narrative and direct it again onto the workers and their plight. The Shimla Park debacle has proven that if we fixate on this spectacle of white privilege and allow it to derail us we will set the workers’ struggle back again by another three years and perhaps even longer. Eckhard Binding may a problem, but he is not the enemy. The enemy is the one the workers are trying to target head-on; systemic oppression and white privilege. Let us equip the workers with the resources to do this by steering the conversation back towards their narrative. Resist sensationalist and sloppy journalism, it will not serve us in our cause for a just society.