Student protests and the quality of “post-apartheid” South Africa

10th February 2016 By: Raymond Suttner

Student protests and the quality of “post-apartheid” South Africa

Raymond Suttner
Photo by: Ivor Markman

The student protests of 2015 rocked the country and forced significant concessions out of university authorities and the government. Much has been written and said about this nascent movement. Most commentators have focussed on whether the students’ demands are practical in the light of serious fiscal constraints. Others have looked at whether the movements we saw last year are likely to endure. A lot has been written about the diverse ideological orientations of the students and the readiness of some to resort to violence or the rhetoric of violence-as-solution. These are some of the questions requiring careful and critical evaluation.

Important as the questions are, the #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall campaigns may raise wider questions going beyond the educational realm and offer a prism through which we can look at post-1994 South Africa and ask troubling questions about the nature of this society. Considering the quality of life of the majority of South Africans, can we say we are in fact living in a post-apartheid society? To what extent do apartheid structural patterns of inequality persist today? Twenty-two years into democracy, how do the conditions of access to university of black students compare with those of white students?

Viewed from this angle, student protests and the issues raised through their solidarity with campus workers relate to broader and fundamental questions of differences in life chances of black students compared to their white counterparts. From birth to the grave, in the streets (if there are streets), in homes (if there are any), in and out of schools, universities, and professional life, the conditions encountered by the majority of black students continue to remain behind that of their white counterparts. Their starting points are different.  

When we speak of a person who has become a doctor or a lawyer, the average white person would have come from a family that had already produced university graduates and from a home built in firm stone. They have resources in the form of money and social and cultural capital from which they draw.  The majority of black graduates had none of these.

In this context, the 2015 student protests force us to reflect on the present legacy of apartheid. How is it reproduced? To answer that, we have to be clear about the meaning and purpose of apartheid. Apartheid comprised institutionalised, systematic national or racial oppression and class exploitation practised against the majority of the South African population, especially Africans, but also Coloured and Indian people. This oppression particularly affected the poor, whether as the working class, the unemployed, those on the land or those removed from or seeking access to the land.

In other words, while apartheid South Africa witnessed offensive individual acts of racism or racial prejudice, it was more than the actions of a few ill-behaved or crude people. It was a systematic process of dispossession of the majority of South Africans economically, politically, socially and culturally. Simultaneously, there was over-empowerment or augmenting of the life chances of the white minority who enjoyed plentiful rights and wealth, often as a result of dispossession of black people, their exclusion from certain types of work or their being confined to the lowest rungs at “slave wages”. Even at the lowest level, white workers, under what was called job reservation, enjoyed a “subsidy” for their whiteness in that they earned more by access to jobs from which black people were barred. White wages could be higher precisely because black wages, particularly on the mines, were lower.

While whites generally enjoyed the full protection of the law and defence against violence, black people experienced continual attacks from the police and army. In this atmosphere of rightlessness there were also many unpunished acts by ordinary white citizens who relied on lax policing of their infringements against black people.

Since 1994, we have lived under a new, democratic constitution. It is important to recognise and acknowledge that much has changed. In fact for many people life has fundamentally improved. They now access resources previously unavailable to them, albeit unevenly and often in ways that have proved unsustainable. Many have for the first time had access to water, health care, electricity, telephones, housing and various other basic needs. The number of school and university students has expanded greatly, opening the way for many who could never previously have dreamt of this.

At a political level the vote was a primary demand of the forces of liberation. It was a great victory to have it extended to all and to see the election of a series of governments representing the majority of South Africans. Paradoxically, it may be in the places where we see some of the most significant changes that we simultaneously also see the deepest continuities of inequality from the past. While very many more people have access to education at all levels, they continue to enter on a basis that is markedly different for black and white.

This is part of wider continuities within the discontinuities of the last 22 years. Key features of the structural architecture of South African society have remained the same, despite gains that have been made. Of course we are no longer under political rule of the white minority. Most apartheid laws have gone. Those who have objected to various expressions of racism have had the law on their side. But if we examine the experiences of most black people in South Africa, today there remain troubling continuities of the apartheid era and its racism.

Their life chances are little different from that of their parents. Every day remains a battle for survival. Education remains an important gateway out of the cycle of poverty and exclusion, for the majority of black South Africans. But the #FeesMustFall movement has reminded us how this is frustrated and constrained by the policies of universities and government. 

The student protests of 2015, showed, once again, the truth that lies just below the surface in South Africa today.  We have seen or heard of the desperate conditions of black students, how some secretly live in lecture halls and sleep in libraries or corridors of institutions. Black students, just like those who came before them in the 1980s, are desperate for accommodation. Every year, they are financially excluded. This is despite claims made by government to make tertiary education accessible.

Protesting in Parliament last year, white students agreed to stand in the front, as barriers against police violence. Correctly, they understood that even today, police are more ready to use excessive force against black bodies. In solidarity with their black comrades, these brave young white men and women put their bodies on the line. They were teargassed and took beatings.  

The students’ reading of the violence meted out against black bodies was in fact correct, illustrated on that day, but also evident in excessive force used against students in predominantly black universities, like Tshwane University of Technology, University of the Western Cape and North-West University.

The student movements have forced us to look closely at ways in which a democratically elected government, chosen to represent all, has often failed to represent the needs of the poorest (black) section of the population. In fact, in many respects, it undermines that duty of representation, severs the connection that it once had to the aspirations and needs of the people. Government’s response to #FeesMustFall movements, in reality a movement against racial and social inequality, has often displayed hostility. The students were characterised in ways that brought back memories of how the apartheid state dealt with students in the 1980s. Whereas previously, students were called terrorists, some of today’s government and sections of the ANC labelled them “CIA agents”. In short, this generation, like the earlier ones under apartheid were characterised as enemies of the state. The legitimacy of their grievances has not yet been engaged with fully and in good faith.

The solution that government has advanced for tertiary education funding, despite relieving the debt of some, will be disastrous for many black professionals when they graduate from universities. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) has declared that it is going to go after defaulters on student loan repayments. This is no way to encourage the development of young professionals. Had government thought and prepared carefully, they would have come up with a scheme that enables students to settle and establish themselves in their professional lives, enabling them to pay rent in offices, acquire equipment needed for their work and build their careers.  Many countries have similar schemes and such arrangements are not impossible to design.

What is clear from our observations of the 2015 student protests is that much remains to be done to change the perception and experience of blackness in South Africa. It remains associated with poverty, exclusion and vulnerability to violence. This is not the responsibility of government, alone. In general, the affluent spaces remain hostile to black people, unless they happen to live in such areas. Policing of black bodies is one of the disturbing continuities of post apartheid South Africa. Neighbourhood watch groups in suburbia define them as outsiders, posing dangers. 

The student protests of 2015 ought to be a wake up call to South Africans, irrespective of our backgrounds and ideological orientations.  No doubt, some of the forms of protest used by students in 2015 require critical scrutiny and left many with a sense of discomfort. The readiness with which violence is invoked as a method or a solution remains one of the disturbing features of post-apartheid South Africa. It is one of the continuities that we must learn to break with.  We need to build peace, and to achieve that we need social justice in universities and in all the spaces where people continue to be denied their basic rights and needs.

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a professor attached to Rhodes University and UNISA and is the author of Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana and Lynne Rienner, 2015). He served lengthy periods as a political prisoner under apartheid. He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner