Many people are still reeling after the last few weeks of #Feesmustfall protests. At the moment of writing campuses are emerging from or still in disarray, closed or operating with police presence, clearing up, assessing damage to property and processing the potential for interdicts.
Clearly the initial unity that students built was fragile and has not always been able to hold as the protests played out: some wanted to continue demonstrations until long-term goals were realised; others believed it was time to pause or cease demonstrating altogether and still others were just anxious to prioritise examinations and lectures. The very democratic character of the movement, in the case of many campuses where weight was placed on decisions by the student body rather than representative bodies like SRCs, set limits on effective decision-making. It often meant that negotiations with authorities aroused suspicion and were difficult to effectuate.
But let us hope that the internal divisions and violent developments do not erase or overshadow the important achievements of the protests, including the willingness to embody the unionist slogan, “an injury to one is an injury to all” that manifested in those who could afford fees standing together with those who could not. Those adversely affected are primarily black and poor students who often have to attend lectures without having eaten, and work long hours at jobs while supposedly being full-time students. Some have had to resort to commercial sex work to pay their fees and survive.
For the first time, students – on some campuses anyway – appear to have formed a sustainable alliance with campus workers and foregrounded the workers’ demands alongside their own. In the process, some important workers’ gains have been won, notably insourcing and provision for workers’ children to free education at Wits and UCT and possibly other institutions.
The protests, from the early days of #Rhodesmustfall, dispelled any doubt there may have been about the salience of race in South African social life. Clearly “race does matter”.
But the protests also demonstrated non-racialism in action, with whites recognising that it was primarily a protest of black people and that it was black students who had to lead. The protests demonstrated an awareness of the privilege associated with whiteness. White students recognised their unequal entry into the alliance. In some cases they put their bodies on the line, proving their willingness to sacrifice by standing as human shields between the police and black students, who were assumed to be more likely to be attacked. This type of action may have been one way of resolving the perpetual soul-searching over how to realise non-racialism today.
Another significant feature of the #Rhodesmustfall and subsequent protests has been the prominence of women as leaders and spokespeople, not only challenging masculinisation of politics but also recognising different ways of being, in particular through the foregrounding of leadership from LGBTIQA + communities.
But the driving force of the protests was the unfulfilled promise of 1994 – the failure to secure social equality between black and white, rich and poor. While this particular protest manifested in the educational arena it runs through our society in a number of different ways. Indeed it undercuts what we mean when we speak of living in a post-apartheid society.
The #Feesmustfall movement thus insistently raises the troubling question of the status of “post apartheid”. It is commonplace to accept that characterisation as valid, for after all, most apartheid laws have been abolished and the political disenfranchisement of black people has ended – two key signifiers of apartheid rule.
White government fell in 1994 and for all its imperfections and failure to realise all aspirations for freedom, it has nevertheless generally been accepted that we are in a fundamentally different society. It can surely not be denied that apartheid is not still ruling in the sense of the government of the day, the laws now in place and so on. The government that rules is elected by the votes of all and ought in theory to enjoy legitimacy from that mandate.
Yet, there are troubling continuities from the apartheid period prevailing in the present, some of which were highlighted and – it must be said – are an omnipresent part of South African life.
The fact is that white rule, as in a whites-only government, may be gone but black oppression still continues. Although white political rule may be over, white domination has not simply evaporated in all its manifestations. We need to unpack the entrenching of privilege and power in terrains like the social, economic and political, which have been historically denied to black people. In many respects it may be accurate to suggest that social power in the broadest sense of the word – that of securing wellbeing in life – continues to elude black South Africans in the main.
More powerfully present is the incidence of violence and against whose bodies it was perpetrated. White rule may be gone but patterns of violence perpetrated against black people continue to have an afterlife in democratic South Africa. One of the most powerfully symbolic elements of the #Feesmustfall movements’ commitment to side with the poor and to provide solidarity with those who were at a disadvantage was the human shield that white students provided around black students when facing the police.
The assumptions behind this powerful enactment of “an injury to one is an injury to all”, and of non-racialism in action, are in themselves a troubling confirmation of both the perception and the reality of continued patterns of violence perpetrated against black bodies in South African society, bodies that are criminalised. The congregation of black bodies is represented in media and other reports as danger and disorder and in a sense the idiom that is deployed creates an environment where repression appears to be necessary and inevitable.
The assumption of the white human shields and their black comrades was that whites were far less likely to be clubbed or shot at, and from the evidence that emerged this assumption was confirmed. The primary recipients of police violence were black students. It also appears that there were many acts of police violence against black students on less prestigious campuses that received less attention, notably North-West University, Tshwane University of Technology and Nelson Mandela Metro University.
In a sense the human shield was both a protest against and a confirmation of an existing situation of inequality that was not part of the protest – the assumption that policing aims at deterring or attacking black bodies. That this situation prevails is part of the afterlife of apartheid in South Africa.
It is correct, in my view, that students at most universities are pausing to write exams and to evaluate their campaigns before waging further protests. Amongst the demands that have been made, some need further examination in order to ensure their realisation. In particular the questions around decolonisation and transformation need to be carefully considered, and to become part of an ongoing debate and engagement. Curricula need to be changed and that means that notions like African philosophy and African scholarship need to be probed, in order to evaluate which African scholars contribute most towards emancipatory outcomes. How one assesses this will be contested, but that debate is necessary.
The process of transformation of the colonial university space requires drawing on research that has been neglected and engaging in further research, but it also requires dedicated teachers. In this process of opening up to scholarship that has often been erased, teaching is central. It is important that the teachers who are to bear this enriched scholarship should be committed to teaching in a way that empowers a new generation, including on a less hierarchical basis than is currently the case. If that does not happen the decolonisation will be empty, with students catching a glimpse of some brilliant or prominent academics but not themselves acquiring the skills to think critically.
Decolonising the university does not mean doing away with scholarship from the North. It entails a critical evaluation of scholarship from a range of continents and a variety of paradigms, some of which have been neglected. Creating emancipatory spaces in the universities will take time and continuous re-evaluation and re-engagement, not only from the more learned professors, but also in interactions between teachers and students. This is not work that can be completed quickly. Indeed to be successfully realised it will always need to be regarded as knowledge production and communication that is seen as “work in progress”. With such humility, universities may make a substantial contribution towards building and enriching democratic discussion in the society at large.
Raymond Suttner is a professor attached to Rhodes University and UNISA. He is a former ANC underground operative and served over 11 years as a political prisoner and under house arrest. He writes contributions and is interviewed regularly on Creamer Media’s website polity.org.za. His most recent book is Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana Media, 2015). His twitter handle is: @raymondsuttner and he blogs at raymondsuttner.com.