Anarchist Revolutionary Movement (ARM) speech, mass meeting, University of \Witwatersrand, 1994 [UPDATED]

LvdW, Anarchist Revolutionary Movement (ARM), speech to mass meeting, University of the Witwatersrand, protests, 1994.

UPDATE: this speech was probably around October 1994, not 1995 as an earlier version of this post suggested.

UPDATE: text below has also been changed substantially.

The meeting was held in the Social Sciences building (now the “Umthombo Building”), convened by the South African Students Congress (SASCO), the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU); other participants included Socialist Students Action Committee (now Keep Left), and ARM (later the Workers Solidarity Federation / WSF). This was part of various protests linked to workers and students facing charges for protests, a general fight around financial “exclusions” of poorer students, the status of the unelected University Council, and various efforts to change Wits from its apartheid past.

The speech below – incomplete notes for which were found in a box of papers last year –  is of some interest: it was one of the first public actions by ARM at Wits, then a small group trying to establish its credentials on campus. The speech was received with enormous applause and excitement –in part, no doubt, because “anarchist” and ARM seemed so extreme, so there was great interest! At this time, protests were quite militant, and much effort had to be put into fighting for the reinstatement of 9 workers and 7 students, expelled or dismissed for involvement in 1994 protests.

ARM proposed in the speech (and elsewhere) as an aim, the creation of a self-managed “Workers University,” an idea that was retained when Wits ARM helped launch the WSF: more on this idea here.

In practice, much of the 1994-1996 campaigns centred around trying to give more power to the Forum for Further Accelerated Comprehensive Transformation (FFACT) – a body in which various student and union leaders sat, and which some felt could be a sort of mini-CODESA. In reality, not much was achieved at FFACT; meanwhile, the mass of activists received few reportbacks from the leaders who sat in FFACT, and were profoundly ignorant of its details and scope.  Yet they were continually called on to support the leaders’ negotiating positions in FFACT by mass protests on campus. 

The FFACT process exemplified the negative side of early 1990s Wits student / worker politics: foot soldiers, who were turned on and off like a tap, by a small group of mainly African National Congress- (ANC)-linked leaders. Protests often relied, also, on class disruptions by small groups: this was easier than systematic, widespread mobilisation, and could be done quickly, but also meant that there was not much effort put into building a large and sustained movement.

Anyway, now to the speech notes:

As comrades here will know, this meeting has been called to find a way forward for the transformation campaign.  More specifically, we are here to try work on how to win reinstatement for dismissed workers and students.  These comrades are out for fighting to make Wits a non-racial and democratic institution.

But the university Administration does not see it that way.  They want to attack supposed troublemakers.  They want to keep Wits in the past.  For some past weeks there have been negotiations with Admin about the issue of dismissals.

But the best the Admin will offer is for workers to be re-employed in different grades – with a probation period – sometime before December this year!  And this will be without the benefits that would have built up in the time of their unfair dismissal.  And the students, according to Admin, well, they can come back – but only in 1998!

The Admin won’t admit it’s wrong.  But it is.  We say our worker and student comrades must be fully reinstated.  We cannot, we will never, accept union bashing and attacks on democrats.

What we need to do is keep up the pressure on Admin.  We need to keep struggling.  We need to re-mobilize progressive students and workers.  Even if our actions are low key, are a little small in size, they are essential.  We need to pressurize [Vice Chancellor Robert] Charlton.  We must also avoid a situation where our campaign collapses, and apathy sets in.

Because if this happens negotiations will replace struggle, leaderships will replace rank-and-file action and initiative. We need to keep up struggle, we need to keep up political education, we need to keep up the fight on the ground.

Our own direct actions can win reinstatement.  Only we can transform this university. But we must fight for a Workers University, governed by all stakeholders, including academic and support staff, as part of a programme of real social transformation, a bottom-up socialism; we must fight to link our actions to the broader democratic struggle; we must not sit back and hope for a new Vice Chancellor or a new government to provide salvation.

And this is what ARM stands for.

So, as ARM, we stress that, as immediate steps:

  • That the workers and students, dismissed or expelled, must come back NOW
  • That Charlton must come down – NOW
  • That Wits must change – NOW
  • That we want to change to a Workers University – NOW
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About Lucien van der Walt

I teach at Rhodes University, the Eastern Cape. I’m South African, born and bred. I am currently also involved in union education and have a background in social movement and left-wing activism, the Workers’ Library and Museum, the Anti-Privatisation Forum, and the National Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU). I’ve presented papers at more than 120 conferences and workshops, published in key journals like 'Capital and Class' and 'Labor History', have co-edited 3 journal specials (these on global labour history, African labour, and unions in the Global South), and written well over 130 other articles, papers and entries. I was Southern Africa editor for the 2009 'International Encyclopaedia of Revolution and Protest' (Blackwell). My focus has been on South Africa, but I have also done research in Zambia and Zimbabwe. I won the 2008 international 'Labor History' thesis prize, and the 2008/2009 Council for the Development of Social Science Research prize for best African dissertation, for my PhD thesis on South African anarchism, syndicalism and black militants. I have several books, including 'Negro e Vermelho: anarquismo, sindicalismo revolucionário e pessoas de cor na África Meridional nas décadas de 1880-1920,' 'Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940: the praxis of national liberation, internationalism, and social revolution' (co-edited with Steve Hirsch, Brill, 2010/ 2014) and 'Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism' (co-written with Michael Schmidt, AK Press 2009).

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