Poor communities in South Africa have been protesting for years – sometimes in the glare of publicity, but more often not. Sometimes these protests were immediately effective, leading to the delivery of services or the recognition of specific local complaints – but more often these protests have led to partial or incomplete outcomes, and to communities continuing to reinvent their struggles.
In most cases, these communities have been on the periphery of South Africa’s economic and social order: living in informal settlements, in the inner city’s ‘bad buildings’, or in under-resourced townships. But late last year, protest erupted at the heart of an elite institution.
On 14 October 2015 students at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, protested against a proposed increase in fees for the coming year. Large groups of students blockaded the main entrances to the campus, preventing cars from entering or leaving. They marched out on the thoroughfares around the campus, disrupting traffic and – at points – clashing with the police.
This protest catalysed student politics across the county. A social media hashtag – #feesmustfall – gained traction, and provided a symbol of solidarity. Within days, protests exploded at the country’s largest and best-funded institutions. Students at the country’s underfunded – and historically black – institutions also acted, occupying campuses at the Cape Province University of Technology, the Tshwane University of Technology, and elsewhere.
On 21 October, students from several Cape Town-based institutions marched on the Houses of Parliament, where they were dispersed with tear gas and arrested. On 23 October, students from universities in Johannesburg and Pretoria marched on the Union Buildings – the official seat of the national executive. At first, the same heavy-handed tactics were deployed to target particularly disruptive groups of protestors: tear-gas canisters were launched, stun grenades thrown, rubber-bullets fired. The protests did not disperse though, and late that afternoon the President announced that the government would fund a year-long freeze in student fee increases.
After the President’s announcement, the crowds were once again forcibly dispersed.
In the weeks and months immediately following, student protests continued across the country, often focussed on the specific issues raised at different campuses. At the University of the Witwatersrand, for example, the question of ‘in-sourcing’ previously out-sourced workers remained a key political issue. At the University of the Western Cape, as well as at the University of Johannesburg, tensions between official Student Representative Councils and the organic groupings of #feesmustfall students soured relations within the student body, and put them in conflict with the universities’ administrations. At the Tshwane University of Technology, as well as the North West University, protests were focussed on responding to the efforts of universities to suspend activists, expel students from residences, and otherwise assert control over students.
Indeed, the attempts by universities to secure campuses soon became a target of protests across the country. Whether administrators hired private security guards to stand at the entrances of lecture venues, or invited the police onto campus to respond to otherwise peaceful protestors, the social dynamic of university space was degraded, and levels of tension ran far higher than normal. Several universities sought and were granted wide-ranging legal interdicts against disruptive forms of protest on their campuses. Others suspended or expelled student leaders – sometimes, no doubt, with cause, but not always. These actions continued to drive student politics at the end of the year, and into the start of the new academic session in January.
In the new year, large protests re-emerged at North West University and the University of Pretoria. In April, students at Rhodes University marched through the Grahamstown streets and set up vigils and pickets at the university’s entrances, challenging a widespread rape culture at the university. In July, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, in the Eastern Cape, was racked by protests. In August, several different campuses of the University of KwaZulu Natal, in Pietermaritzburg and Durban, were disrupted and closed as students launched new protests.
But as time has passed, the apparent coherence of the movement at its height seemed to fragment. At some campuses, mass support for protests has faded and a small core of activists have taken the lead. At some campuses, Student Representative Councils have become effective interlocutors; at others, they have been fatally associated with the administration. The influence of national political parties has also been felt, with student groups aligned to the governing African National Congress clashing with groups linked to the oppositional Economic Freedom Fighters.
The focus of the protests, too, has diversified. Several different concerns have taken centre stage during the year following the gathering at the Union Buildings. The most prominent of these concerns have been those gathered under the loose heading of ‘decolonising education’. Many students have drawn attention to the ways in which university curricula inculcate Western norms and demean African experiences. Some have pointed to the ways in which we teach as part of the broader problem. There has also been a split between those calling for free tertiary education, fully funded by the state, and those arguing for a reconfiguration of the existing structure of fees.
Over the same period, the tactics of many students have changed. In a highly-visible minority of cases, there has been some violence – as well as a turn to vandalism of university property. In May 2016, an auditorium at the University of Johannesburg was set alight and burned. In the same month, an attempt was made to place explosive gas canisters in the University of the Witwatersrand’s law library, and although this attempt to do damage failed, it signalled the possibility of more violent encounters. Most recently, in September 2016, the law library at the University of KwaZulu Natal’s Durban campus was set alight, and a section of its holdings burned.
In response both to actual outbreaks of violence and to its perceived threat in other circumstances, universities have continued to tighten security. The presence of armoured security guards, often clustered around sensitive buildings, with clear shields at their feet and helmets hanging around their necks, has become a depressingly standard feature of university life in the past year. Management has added to this securitised atmosphere by making public statements and circulating emails that threaten protestors with arrest and expulsion.
It is in this air of distrust and tension that national student protests have once again erupted.
In mid- September 2016, the Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, made a confusing announcement about next year’s potential fee increases. He suggested that the state will permit universities to raise fees by up to 8% and that the state will cover the difference for students from families who earn below R600,000 per annum. In effect, this seems to point towards the introduction of a graded fee structure, in which the state and wealthier students pay more. He could not say, however, whether or not this proposal was in fact funded by the national Treasury.
This has satisfied no one.
And so, in recent days, students have once again called for universities to be shut down.
On 20 September, students at the University of the Witwatersrand threw stones at private security guards, who retaliated by throwing the stones back into the crowds of passing students. Videos of the altercation have been spread through social media, and suggest that the guards are completely untrained in crowd control – easily riled up, violent and aggressive. Students come off little better, but at least their violence seems directly linked to a particular aim – access to the building being defended by guards. Once that access was granted, the confrontation ceased.
The sight of students throwing stones at uniformed men is unmistakably similar to scenes being played out across the country, in protests that pit communities of the poor against police forces.
These protests are best understood as struggles by groups of citizens whose political agency has either been misrecognised or entirely overlooked within the post-apartheid political order. Official democratic structures of representation, consultation and even participation position members of these communities as inferior supplicants – men and women in need of governance, direction and enlightenment by others. Politicians, bureaucrats and other experts dismiss their claims as poorly-articulated, as made in ignorance of the operations of power, or just as forms of special pleading.
In this context, these communities have sought alternate forms of political action – most prominently, but not exclusively, protest. For more than a decade, communities of the excluded, the marginalised and the misrecognised have taken to the streets, sometimes burning tyres and blockading highways, occasionally destroying public buildings, and regularly facing off against an aggressive and brutal police force. At the same time, though, these communities have attempted to engage with formal structures through appeals to elected officials and participation in local committees. They have also made use of the legal strategies created by South Africa’s Constitutional framework, suing the state to force the enactment of their constitutional rights.
This mixture of tactics – peaceful and violent protests, participation in formal state structures, defensive and aggressive litigation – has come to mark the development of an insurgent democratic politics in South Africa. Protestors have faced police violence and state repression, and while many struggles have been extinguished, others have continued, altered and adapted.
If we are to understand the current student insurgency, we must look at the political environment characterised by the insurgency of South Africa’s poor citizens. Students are joining the poor in acting outside of the bounds of ordinary politics – by protesting, challenging authority and demanding that they be recognised as real political actors and that their claims be answered.
In doing so, they are likely to face the power and violence of authority: of armed private security guards, of the police, of the courts, of the law. Already, this new wave of student protest has been greeted with thrown stones, with tear gas. Activists have already been arrested and detained.
In these circumstances, no one remains pure. Students will fall into retaliatory violence. At times they may be tempted by the possibility of acting violently themselves, whether to underline a political point, or to assert their own radicalism. In some of these cases violence will work, encouraging an escalation of the confrontation.
But if students only protest in this fashion, they are likely to be dispersed and suppressed by the state. Authority does not often respond well to direct confrontation. If the student movement is to survive for years to come – if it is to develop, entrench itself and produce lasting change – it will need to adopt the strategies used by communities of the poor. It will need to diversify its strategies and tactics. It will need to hold on to every success along the way. It will need to avoid the despair that comes from failures and to hold onto the hope that these failures are temporary.
Whichever path they take, though, students are now part of the process of remaking South Africa’s post-apartheid democracy – a process that is not shaped in the halls of parliament, or in the cool atmosphere of the country’s courtrooms, but is rather emerging on the unruly streets.
And so, South Africa’s students are laying claim to being insurgent – rather than passive – citizens.
Julian Brown is author of South Africa’s Insurgent Citizens.
Photograph: By Myolisi http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)