In the Spirit of Marikana: Disruption, Workers and Insourcing

In a penetrating analysis of events in South Africa, Jonathan Grossman writes that the student mobilisations have directly challenged the myth of the rainbow nation. They have done this through direct action, disruption and interference bringing, as did workers at Marikana. This is still a movement confronted by the ongoing search for alternatives to the oppression and exploitation of everyday life, facing challenges of every kind including patriarchy and class issues in their own movement. But a new legacy of struggle is being built as an old legacy of struggle is being rediscovered and rescued. There is a narrative that says students did for workers what workers could not do for themselves, or that it was students who gave workers voice. However the reality was a deep solidarity between workers and students taking action. It was not about giving voice. Instead, it was about building the strength to force managements to do what they would not themselves have done. Grossman argues that the struggle for free education and against outsourcing in the public sector at the universities has to become the struggle for free education at all levels and free basic services. The struggle against the commodification of labour in the universities has to be made a struggle against outsourcing and for a living wage across the whole of the public sector. It can become part of a resurgence of the workers movement which can and must be in alliance with students and youth in struggle. This articles argues that these are themselves requirements for the renewal of the workers movement. The student movement is enriching all struggles in South Africa with a totalising vision of decolonising, bringing a resurgent vitality to the student worker alliance. 

By Jonathan Grossman

In February 2015, a student activist at the University of Cape Town (UCT) symbolically defaced a statue of colonialist Cecil John Rhodes with human excrement. He did this as part of an emerging pattern of ‘poo-protests’ which had been developed in working class communities in the struggle for sanitation and other necessary services. RhodesMustFall (RMF) became the mobilising slogan and then the tag of a movement which rapidly developed from a focus on the statue to a much deeper broader focus on the continuing legacy of colonialism in everyday life.[1] In the face of mounting protest, the university authorities removed the statue. As exams approached in October 2015, students mobilised across many campuses around the demand for no fee increase. In the face of massive protests at Parliament, the Union Buildings administrative seat of government, and ANC national headquarters, a nervous government was rapidly forced to concede. Students have continued with a broader struggle for free education, as part of a deeper struggle for a de-colonising transformation across tertiary educational institutions and society more broadly. This is now reflected in a national movement #FeesMustFall.[2]  In demanding free education the students are taking their place in a broader movement centred in working class communities, focused on services necessary in everyday life.

At one of the first RMF meetings, before the statue had in fact been taken down, outsourced workers in the UCT Workers Forum[3] brought their own set of ongoing demands, putting it like this:

Black workers built UCT with their own hands in the colonial past. Black workers were oppressed at UCT in the Apartheid past. Black workers were retrenched and outsourced at UCT in the post-Apartheid past. The first people to know about racism and sexism and exploitation at UCT are the black women workers. It is there in workers lives every day. … It cannot be that students can only learn if workers suffer. It cannot be that academics can only do their work if workers suffer. It cannot be that there is only education if capitalist bosses can make a profit. But it is all happening here at UCT. It must change for workers. Workers together we must change it….We are angry….Together in struggle and solidarity, workers and students we must change UCT! The time for the strike is coming.

The workers demanded what was in effect a doubling of wages ‘as a step towards a living wage in the spirit of Marikana.’ And continued, ‘This is a public sector institution. There should be no capitalist companies brought here to make profits. Education must be free. UCT must directly employ everyone working here. Workers must know that their job is safe. With decent working conditions. And comfortable lives. Outsourcing must end. The bosses must go. All the workers must stay.’

In 1999 UCT had been the first South African university to outsource.[4] The driving force was Mamphela Ramphele, later to become an Executive Director of the World Bank. Public sector outsourcing takes the provision of goods and services necessary to the functioning of even a very limited public sector in the capitalist economy and makes it dependant on private companies reaping a profit. It has a particular significance where the goods and services may not have been available to the working class – making extension of provision dependant on profit and private capitalist companies. The institution becomes an agent for redistributing public funds to the private sector.  Underpinning the opposition to outsourcing was an opposition to privatisation in general and the vision of a public sector tasked with meeting needs as opposed to providing profits.

Since outsourcing, worker demands had been taken to UCT in petitions, marches, protests and memoranda.  Workers were met with a standard response: ‘UCT has investigated and decided to continue with outsourcing. Insourcing is now off the agenda.’ UCT was met with a standard response from workers. ‘It might be off your agenda. It stays on our agenda.’ In 2015 the demand for insourcing was adopted by RMF, echoed across a growing number of campuses and brought together in a national day of action on October 6.  Despite some unevenness and inconsistency, the struggle of students embraced the struggle of workers for insourcing.   On 24 October in the face of growing student and worker action, UCT became the first university to formally agree to insourcing.

Faced with ongoing campaigning by workers over years since initial outsourcing, UCT had been forced to concede that outsourced workers could meet and protest on campus. This removed one of the basic advantages to management of outsourcing: the displacement of disruption. It had also been forced to recognise that wages set in law and paid by the companies it hired were too low – and had interfered to set higher minimums. This was extended to other conditions of service and employment, like maternity leave, in a Code for Service Providers, initially adopted in 2006.  This too removed some of the cost-cutting claims of outsourcing and the denial of responsibility for what happened to workers on whom UCT depended. UCT had been forced, even while denying this, to act visibly like ‘the real boss’, to recognise that the demand for insourcing would not go away. In the word ‘forced’ above is years of campaigning and protest action by workers against UCT. No number of reports, investigations or announcements did anything to change that. In the course of this struggle, most workers at UCT had become members of the main COSATU public sector National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU) despite COSATU policy which allocated them to different ‘industrial unions’. This sometimes involved forcing their way into the public sector union, a process which over years faced a combination from union officialdom of hostility, indifference, inefficiency, suspicion albeit with significant cases of individual support. In the face of similar responses, there had been formed a NEHAWU Joint Shop Stewards Council (JSSC). Over years, management faced ongoing pressure from ordinary workers, sometimes actively drawing support from their union, in an unyielding, vigorous, relentless persistence of the demand for direct employment and associated improvements. As exams approached in October 2015, there were two additional factors which forced UCT’s hand. One was a less visible legal process of workers united across all outsourced companies and through the NEHAWU JSSC declaring a dispute with UCT around wages and related issues. Although there were legal complexities which obstructed this process, and although it had become bogged down in internal bureaucratic problems inside the union, UCT knew that the move towards a strike was serious, and that it was planned to begin on the first day of exams, 26 October.

Above all else, there was the overwhelmingly visible consistent support from mobilised students who were determined and successful in generating the disruptive action at UCT which had not yet come from workers and which had forced management to close the campus in the weeks preceding exams.

On Friday 23 October, UCT management responded to the union dispute demands in the normal way. The following day, without any additional ‘research’, UCT abandoned its position, indicating its intention to pursue insourcing. In the face of continuing student and worker action, this was rapidly escalated into a decision to insource – again, without any of the research which they had always invoked as necessary.  What workers had been saying for years was confirmed: UCT was responsible for outsourcing. UCT had the power to insource.

The myth of the rainbow: mists over continuities in everyday life

Change in South Africa came with continuities. The new South Africa for workers at UCT, as elsewhere, had meant outsourcing:  retrenchments, cutting wages, reducing benefits, undermining unions. Over time, the issue of whether things were better or worse post-apartheid was an abstraction. Nothing was good enough. Across the working class more generally, generations saw their hope stolen; new generations saw hope being denied. Workers lost confidence that there could ever be solutions. Theft and denial of hope became mistrust – of politics, politicians, and most importantly of themselves each other, their organisations – any organisations.[5]

Insourcing agreement at UCT and the agreements which followed in other places are arguably the biggest single advances in the struggle against privatisation in post-apartheid South Africa. Those advances followed ongoing struggles in working class communities and the Marikana and platinum strikes. At Marikana, workers brought to the fore in the private sector and mines what had sometimes surfaced and sporadically developed in the public sector and communities. At its core was a developing anger and resistance to the continuities of apartheid experienced in post-apartheid working class life. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) was emboldened by Marikana to become the first COSATU union to break from the ANC and the SA Communist Party. Students were emboldened by Marikana and the NUMSA break. Workers at universities were emboldened by students. Once this began to coalesce into an ongoing movement, everyone was emboldened by the movement. Black consciousness was revitalised by students from a history supressed by the myth of a rainbow post-racist South Africa in their thirst for what was inspirational and liberatory in everyday life and struggle.

The myth of the rainbow mists over the deep social structures of racial oppression which are denied, patriarchy which is trivialised, and the deeply socially structured exploitation of the working class which is rendered as ‘poverty and inequality’ – stripped from the capitalist relations and private ownership of which it is the product. This ideologised obfuscation has also been disguised by an earlier sustained myth of convergence: the part of official history which says that an anti-apartheid opposition of capital and the anti-apartheid struggle of the working class converged into a common unified struggle for non-racial democracy. [6]

The capitalist class post-apartheid has been able for much of the time to exploit this myth and promote its protection through invisibility – including of its own culpability under apartheid as the agent and beneficiary of systematic gross violations. Marikana and the platinum strikes were decisive in placing the role of capitalists at the fore and shattering the myth of convergence. The student mobilisations have directly challenged the myth of the rainbow. They have done this through direct action, disruption and interference bringing, as did workers at Marikana and other strikes,  a new, qualitatively enriched challenge to the demobilisation on which the ‘negotiated settlement’ partly depended. Pursuing this challenge has necessarily meant confrontation with an ANC now running a bosses’ government in tightened collaboration with COSATU and the SACP. This is still a movement confronted by the ongoing search for alternatives to the oppressions and exploitation of everyday life, facing challenges of every kind including patriarchy and class issues in their own movement.  But a new legacy of struggle is being built as an old legacy of struggle is being rediscovered and rescued.

UCT management forced to insource

UCT, the first university to outsource was also the first university forced by this movement to meaningfully and seriously commit to insourcing. Ordinary workers who laid the path of a sustained struggle against outsourcing now embraced and made real solidarity and support for students.

In this long history, workers interfered with the decisions and the control of management, but using only a small part of their strength. What was missing – and repeatedly acknowledged as necessary – was serious and decisive disruption. Initially separated in different unions, workers were under the stranglehold of a class collaboration Labour Relations Act which purported to give the right to strike and in fact, in much of lived experience, actually took it away. And while class collaboration meant a stranglehold of legalism and proceduralism,  the necessary disruption was obstructed. Coming together in one union in dispute with UCT placed united strike action on the agenda. While that was happening, the students brought the disruption of direct action which forced the university to shut down. There was interference, and challenge which went wide and deep. Faced with the relentless demand, the threat of disruption coming from workers, the reality of disruption created by students and a deepening worker-student solidarity, UCT was forced to become the first institution to concede to the demand for insourcing.

After the about-face of UCT management, the JSSC signed an insourcing agreement without taking it back to workers for a mandate. At a time when protest action had closed UCT, they endorsed management’s call for a return to normal functioning – an end to student and worker action. Workers were left uncertain about the content of the agreement and the actual meaning of insourcing. They were also angered by the lack of democratic practice and the interference with a deeply felt solidarity with students in struggle. At a massive general meeting, workers had the chance to show this. Although the JSSC began the meeting with an apology, it was too little too late. For a moment, workers took their union back into their own hands through the displacement of the shop stewards, the ejection of the official, and the creation of a Workers Committee. It was the organic capacity of the working class in mobilised action.  Even at the moment when they themselves make such assertion and defiance possible, workers were pressed to look for easier options: undermined and denigrated by everyday life, there was a quest for someone who knows better, is more important, with more resources, who can seemingly achieve what workers have been unable to achieve. The possibilities for substitutionism were there and could only be dealt with by consistent political respect for workers.

The Workers Committee seemingly disappeared almost before it appeared and has not functioned. The moment did not last, open to different forces who took advantage of it. This was a very particular situation but these were ordinary workers, taking the opportunity to express what is widespread across the working class. They created an extraordinary moment. When the same thing happens and is more sustained, widespread, firmly in the hands of workers, when it coalesces, is coordinated, affirmed, celebrated, organised together into a movement of solidarity and confidence of workers in themselves and each other, we will have the renewal of the workers movement which South Africa so desperately needs.

At times like that, workers leap over ‘stages’. Muck is stripped away, cast aside, and the organic capacity is freed. In fact, it is not exactly leaping over stages. It is doing in a moment what they have heard and thought about for years. It is all condensed and concentrated into that moment. It is why the protection of the moment becomes so important. And its protection can only be secured by its development. As one message in the social media platform of the UCT Workers Solidarity Committee said, ‘The hands of workers do all the work. Everything we need comes from those hands.  The struggle of workers goes forward when its workers who take that struggle into their own hands.’

Workers have been struggling for insourcing at UCT for years. They have been fighting that struggle directly against UCT as the real boss for years. They have heard and said for years that UCT is not a good boss – there is no such thing. But it is the real boss. They have been hearing and saying for years that insourcing must come because there is no university without the hands of workers. On this basis, when UCT decided to insource – no worker said thank you. Instead they said that insourcing must not be about changing uniforms, it must be about changing lives. And their response was focused on that: what about job security, wages and conditions? Everyday control? Will life be different? It was a simple message, echoing a mood across the working class and its struggles against the continuities in everyday life, even in the context of a changed South Africa.

It is part of the hegemony of neo-liberalism that across the political spectrum, politics has been reduced to economics. Economics has been reduced to arithmetic. It is all about the arithmetic of managing the crisis: how many litres of free water? How much free electricity? How many jobs created by the Extended Public Works programme? How many children in school? How many new places in tertiary institutions? The arithmetic is deployed to make the argument that things are worse or that things are better. None of this addresses the encounters with oppression and exploitation, uncertainty, theft and denial of hope, yearning for something better. Increasingly amongst ordinary workers is a single message: it does not matter if things are better. Better is not good enough. Nothing is fine. Nothing is good enough.

No arithmetic can deal with that. It demands vision of alternatives. Solutions. And for that to happen, there must be an agent. Where is the power to create real solutions to all these problems? Where is the power to create something that is qualitatively different?

Decommodification: the basis of alliance and future struggles

Using the apparently objective criterion of merit as reflected in school results, the ‘top’ universities are already deeply and essentially elitist. There is a funnel of the deeply entrenched inequalities of the racist patriarchy of capitalism which serves to filter and exclude. At historically white universities, black students have illuminated the everyday meaning, particular depth and breadth of institutional racism. Many have challenged patriarchy.  For increasing numbers of black students, extended access to higher education post-apartheid actually means being forced into unemployment or insecure employment with certificates and debts. All of this fuelled the student movement. For workers in the universities, it means being forced into employment where you and your work are denigrated as ‘non-core’ and unskilled because you do not have enough certificates. And you also have debts because of this. These worlds can connect directly when the black student and the black outsourced worker encounter each other in struggle. The certificate does not mean problems are solved. The absence of the certificate does not mean the educational institution can or does function without you. The pervasive ideology insists on both. And the university itself is core to the development, maintenance and dissemination of the ideology.

This tends to be reinforced by the ideologised conventional wisdom which represents the rolling capitalist crisis as a problem of a skills deficit to be resolved by skills development. For the individual, education is presented as the route out of poverty. For the society, skills development is the route out of unemployment. This ideoligisation does its job of both reflecting and distorting underlying realities, existing in the context of the competitive individualism and the drive for competitive productivity which capitalism demands.  In the lived experience of an outsourced worker, the university is not in fact a site of education but a site of work and exploitation. And there is something particularly galling when the worker sees and must deal with the commodification of education: searching for school fees and associated costs for children in ‘township schools’, knowing that you can enter the university to clean but will not be able to qualify to enter to learn. Knowing that there is no university without the labour of workers, but having to deal with the drive to push down the costs of employing those workers as if they are an unwelcome expense in the way of education. In different ways, something similar is replicated across the public sector where the hands of workers are essential to providing the service, but the workers themselves are denigrated as non-core.

While it can be less brutal than the case of other services, commodification of education is pervasive. Its outcome includes a deep alienation of the human being whose value and contribution is reduced to a mark, a certificate and place in the queue to serve capitalist masters. In the case of the outsourced worker, forced to queue to serve capitalist masters, the value and the contribution are reduced to a poverty wage, insecurity, and the absence of the certificate. The skills deficit becomes a deficit of a human being. The commodification of education meets the commodification of labour and it leaves human beings denigrated, alienated and damaged.

The commodification of labour is an historically primary commodification, core to the very existence of capitalism. The struggle for free education is in continuity with all the struggles in the public sector – all the struggles against privatisation. It is about the commodification of services including health, education – and labour. In the recent struggles we have seen a meeting point: the commodification of education meeting the outsourced workers, a brutal instance of the commodification of labour.

Often forced into unemployment and debt; forced into employment and debt, the distance between the middle class black student and the black worker is bridged by the black student from working class backgrounds. As much as this makes for daily dehumanisation, so it also opens the door to solidarity and generosity of sharing between workers and students in struggle. A moment in history has occurred. Students are fiercely determined to define and own that moment. Like all the best moments of struggle, its value will lie also in the ways in which it is shared beyond and outside of itself with all who can live without oppression and exploitation. As such, it is a moment which belongs also to workers who brought to it their own demands together with a deep sense of solidarity and support for students. Social media was crucial to the building of the movement and the solidarity which it developed. It can also be a beguiling instrument of solidarity. One of the features of this student movement was the extent, depth and determined perseverance of support from workers for student activism and student demands. Of course this was shared by those student activists. The point about workers is that it went far beyond the activist layer. It was the ordinary outsourced worker who expressed, felt and showed a deep support and care for the students in struggle.

Building and renewing legacy of struggle

These insourcing victories against privatisation in the public sector remind us, as did workers who do not say thank you, that they are belated defence against an attack, not a step forward to a better life. Central to the theft of hope had become the loss of confidence amongst workers that there can be any real solution, and above all else, that they and their own class and self-organisation can bring that solution. There are emerging narratives which combine, although they come from very different places, to promote this. Amongst part of the left, the assessment is that students achieved in days what the trade unions/labour movement/workers failed to achieve in 20 years. From UCT management, it is the assessment that this struggle has been about giving the voiceless a voice. They merge all too easily into an assessment, sometimes stated, more often implied and hinted,  which suggests that students did for workers what workers could not do for themselves, or that it was students who gave workers voice.

The fact is that after years of relentless campaigning and demands, one relatively limited instance of disruption, with some national co-ordination across campuses, succeeded in doing what 20 years of non-disruption had failed to achieve.  At UCT, in the immediate event, that disruption came primarily from the actual action of students and the threatened action of workers. At University of Johannesburg, in the event, it came primarily from the action of workers. In both situations, there was the basis and the reality of a deep solidarity between workers and students taking action. It was not about giving voice. Instead, it was about building the strength to force managements to do what they would not themselves have done, forcing people to listen when they exercised power to ignore and reject what they heard. In all of the struggle and with all of the demands, there was only one which was rejected out of hand by UCT management: the demand that it guarantee workers the right to strike with protection, whether or not they followed the restrictive procedures of the LRA. Any management has the power to do that. UCT management in fact was forced to exercise that power under apartheid. But the demand was about freeing the power of workers – shackled as it is by myriad of constraints including the provisions of the post-apartheid law. As it happened, it was only when a tiny part of their power was freed by action that workers could seriously move forward, even if only in defence against the earlier attack of outsourcing. Extended into the broader struggle, it is the power of workers to stop production. It goes far beyond that – in the hands of the working class is also the power to produce. This is not about consultation, participation or voice. It is about who decides, on what basis, through what process – about power itself. Extended as it must be beyond the university and beyond the public sector, it is about the alternative to capitalist class rule – working class rule.

A living wage is not decommodification. But it is a necessary part of the workers struggle for decommodification. And, focused as it is on the core of the processes of capitalist profit generation, it can be turned into an organised challenge to profit making and made a transitional part of the struggle for socialism. It is interference with the ordinary processes of bourgeois price-fixing: about who decides the price, through what process, and according to what criteria. In the everyday of capitalism, all of these questions are given answers which reflect capitalist power derived from private ownership and protected by the state. In the hands of the workers movement, it is workers who decide, using workers democracy in organisation and action, on the basis of needs.

In the individualised, hierarchical structures of racist capitalist society, free education at the tertiary level is all too easily turned into an elitist privilege.  In the capitalist logic of the market, if costs are not recovered in education, they have to be recovered elsewhere – a redistribution of commodification. In the hands of the workers movement, it can be turned into an essential transitional part of the struggle for socialism. It means decisions about all social services – including education – being brought into the hands of a renewed workers movement, pursued through organisation and action, and based on needs. And in the hands of such a renewed workers movement it cannot stay at the level of tertiary education, nor can tertiary education be based on who to exclude, not who to include, or about how to serve profits, rather than how to serve needs. The struggle for free education and against outsourcing in the public sector at the universities has to become – be made – the struggle for free education at all levels and free basic services. And the struggle against the commodification of labour in the universities has to be made the struggle against outsourcing and for a living wage across the whole of the public sector. It can become part of a resurgence of the workers movement which can and must be in alliance with students and youth in struggle.  These are themselves requirements for the renewal of the workers movement.

As much as the public sector is corrupted, diseased and undermined, it embodies a residual sense of welfare, the common good, public services, the needs of the community. Pursuing the struggle against commodification on the basis of social needs provides further grounding for vision – a vision which once did and once again must extend to the end of private property which is the basis of commodification. The struggle against apartheid was precisely that – about negation. The future was about a vision, increasingly called by the name of socialism. It is happening again in a movement characterised by negation: decommodification, disalienation, anti- privatisation. The student movement is enriching it with a totalising vision of de-colonising, bringing a resurgent vitality to the student worker alliance.

There are accumulating signs of resurgence, a history which has not yet happened, but is being made possible and forged on the ground, carrying with it the hope of a new centre of authority in a renewed workers movement. Even in the face of the numerous challenges and obstacles, institutions, laws and politics of class collaboration are increasingly being directly and consciously defied and rejected. It may be visibly highlighted in a left movement amongst prominent individuals and groups of leaders – as in the NUMSA moment. But to be successful it must be shaped and depends on a series of struggles – events and processes of organisation and mobilisation – on the ground.  It will have to build on struggles which have happened and are happening: characterised by solidarity, direct action against the capitalist class, willingness to disrupt in defiance of law and agreement, demands based on needs, workers control, organic organisations of struggle of the working class rank and file, and a vision of complete negation – an end to all forms of oppression and exploitation. In that, it is actually also renewing and revitalising the best of the legacy of struggle of the past.  Above all else, it is creating a new experience which is allowing workers to build a resurgent confidence in themselves, their class and their capacity to collectively create solutions with trustworthy allies in struggle. It is best called the spirit of Marikana – not just a commission, a massacre or a tragedy, but the grounding of a workers’ future.

Jonathan Grossman in Senior Lecturer in the Sociology Department at the University of Cape Town. His writing and research focuses on the public sector and alienation in the everyday experience of working class life under capitalism. Jonathan is also an activist and socialist, assisting the organisation, mobilisation and struggles of outsourced worker in the public sector.


[1] See;  see also

[2] See

[3] On the UCT Workers Forum see Grossman, J. (2009). Renewed organising in the outsourced pubilc sector workplace of the global village: The experince of the Workers’ Forum at UCT. In V. Cornell, New forms of organising (pp. 202-217). Cape Town: International Labour Resource and Information Group Group .

[4] See Grossman, J. (2006). World Bank Thinking, world class institutions, denigrated workers. In R. Pithouse, Asinamali: University struggles in post-apartheid South Africa (pp. 93-108). Asmara: Africa World Press.

[5] This view of the transition is elaborated in Ngwane, T. and Grossman, J. (2011). ‘Looking back moving forward: Legacies of struggle and the challenges facing the new social movements. In Essof, S. and  Moshenberg,D.  Searching for South Africa (pp. 160-189). Pretoria: University of South Africa.

[6] On the myth of convergence see Grossman, J. (1997). The right to strike and worker freedom in and beyond Apartheid. In Brass, T. and van der Linden, M. Free and unfree labour (pp. 145-172). Bern: Peter Lang.



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