Student protests and postapartheid South Africa’s negative moment

The political theorist Achille Mbembe, from the University of the Witswatersrand in Johannesburg, describes South Africa as experiencing a “negative moment.” Though protest and dissatisfaction with the terms of the “new” South Africa have been brewing for some time, there is a strong sense that the black majority is losing patience with the ruling African National Congress. The student protests, which engulfed campuses for much of 2015, while limited by its narrow base and focus, gave a glimpse of what it could look like if the black majority turned on the ANC.

South Africa’s democratic system is twenty-two years old. The ruling African National Congress (ANC), once a liberation movement, has been transformed into an ordinary political party encumbered by an election cycle mentality, and the largesse of the state. The party also presents a paradox: Dissatisfaction with it and government are at all time highs. Much of the rancor is reserved for the country’s president, Jacob Zuma (2009-), whose regime is associated with the widespread corruption of state institutions and party structures. Yet, the ANC continues to command electoral majorities nationally, and holds executive power in eight of the nine provinces. The exception is the Western Cape, governed by an opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. The ANC also controls all major metros, i.e. large cities, except for one (Cape Town, also run by the DA).

Because of the relative weakness of opposition parties, the fragmentation of the opposition landscape more generally, and the ANC’s continued national dominance, the preferred forms of political opposition are street protests, including wildcat strikes, by workers.

Protests and disruptions are not new in the “new” South Africa.  But after an initial honeymoon period (which concluded with the retirement of Nelson Mandela from elected office), protests become synonymous with democratic politics in South African politics.

Between 1999 and 2003, those protests took the form of either service delivery protests or more well organized “social movements.” The former were very local, often spontaneous, mostly parochial, short-lived struggles over housing, electricity and housing evictions. The latter were more planned, media savvy, drew on the language of struggle, allied to the ANC, brought back the language of the antiapartheid struggle and asserted new constitutional rights. The movement for access to affordable AIDS drugs and treatment, led by the Treatment Action Campaign is the best example. The TAC produced what was South Africa first post-apartheid, progressive—and crucially multiracial and national—movement outside the ANC and the trade unions, and forced concessions from the state through the court system.

By the mid to late 2000s, more sporadic, and very violent protests, characterized by retaliatory police violence became ubiquitous. Police violence against protesters were commonplace, so was the security services spying on activists.

But throughout this period, the ANC retained its legitimacy as the guarantor of the post-apartheid settlement. By this I mean the series of political, social and economic deals in which the racial inequalities of Apartheid and wealth disparities largely remain intact and which benefits whites in general. South Africa remains the most unequal country in the world with high levels of unemployment, much of it structural, disproportionately concentrated within the black labor force.  At the same time, the ANC promised a better life to black South Africa. To some extent they’ve delivered on it: 45% of households now receive some form of social assistance, more children are enrolled in schools and the government has embarked on an ambitious affirmative action project, creating a black middle class numerically equal the size of the white population.

Then came the fateful events in August 2012 at Marikana, a mine owned by a British multinational in which the country’s current deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was a non executive board member. Police—under pressure from the mine company and the minister of police—murdered 34 striking mine workers in broad daylight.  The events shocked South Africa though it, crucially, didn’t result in mass protests. The government subsequently held a public commission which disappointingly did not hold anyone specific accountable, but its symbolism wasn’t lost on South Africans and South Africa watchers. As Dan Magaziner and I wrote on “The Atlantic” magazine’s website in 2012: Though public discourse in South Africa refuse to acknowledge this, Marikana also marked the end of South African exceptionalism. South Africa’s problems are no longer specific to the apartheid legacy, but about more global issues of poverty and inequality, labor rights, corporate responsibility and the behavior of multinational corporations.

In subsequent national and provincial elections in 2014, the ANC retained its electoral majority, but the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), formed merely a few months earlier, gained about 6% of the national vote. Since then, the EFF has replaced the Democratic Alliance as the effective parliamentary opposition in the public’s mind.  They use a mix of carnival (they dress like Chavistas), mass protests (they succeeded in getting 50,000 people to march from downtown Johannesburg to the city’s financial quarter where banks and the stock exchange is located) to disrupting parliamentary politics (getting kicked out of the chamber, shouting for President Zuma “to pay back the money” and publicly mocking his association with a wealthy business family).

The student protests are a reflection of this wider unease.

South Africa has 23 public universities, which includes some technikons since upgraded to university status. Most students in higher education institutions are black—a result of the new government’s expansion of college access. While students at historically black universities (like Tshwane University of Technology or the University of the Western Cape) had been protesting over fees and outsourcing of service jobs on campuses, it would be protests over symbols at UCT and Rhodes that would kickstart the student movement. In March, at UCT, students protested the prominence of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, a divisive colonial figure, while at Rhodes they objected to the name of the university.  Those protests morphed into demands for more diverse faculty and to “decolonize” curriculums.

By midyear, the protests linked up with trade unions opposing outsourcing on campuses, and by year end they demanded, first, a freeze on fees increases, and simultaneously free, public higher education. In late October 2015, after students had marched to his office in the capital Pretoria, Zuma announced there would be no fee increase. The movement was distinctive for its use of social media, highlighting patriarchy and sexual abuse in black movement politics, openly questioning the hegemony of the ANC and the failure of the new South Africa to deal with racial and class inequality.

Since the end of 2015, as the essayist TO Molefe (who is sympathetic to the students) has noted in “World Policy Journal,” the student movements have stalled somewhat: “Revolution as becoming isn’t only about what society and individuals should become; the protesters mostly appear to have that part down pat. They want freedom, for real this time, for themselves and those like them. But there is also this perhaps most important question at the center of this principle: How do you co-exist with those whose outsized power you’ve just overthrown?”

Similarly, the insistence on horizontal forms of organization, may hamstrung the students: Everyone is a leader.  There is no national, coordinated structure, but a series of movements and allies that draw on student groups, the youth wings of mainstream political parties and SRC’s. As a result, groups like the EFF and the even smaller PAC (Pan-Africanist Congress), a black nationalist party that is relatively marginalized in both liberation and postapartheid politics, have made comebacks among students.

Black racial solidarity is foregrounded in some cases (the movements at UCT and Wits University inhibit white student involvement), but obscures differences in the issues faced by students depending on where they are located in the class structure that is South Africa’s higher education system. The issues and conditions of a black student at UWC is very different from her counterpart at UCT. Similarly, the state has employed significantly more violence in its response to protests at historically black universities where there’s less media coverage and very little middle class outrage.

Then there’s the terminology. The students prefer “decolonization” to “transformation,” the latter preferred by the state and university administrations. But even then, “decolonization” remains an elusive term. It is a big catchall, encompassing symbolic politics, white supremacy, curriculum, patriarchy, demands for diverse faculty, language politics, fees and free public higher education, among others.

Currently, students on some of the elite campuses (most notably Wits, UCT and to some extent Rhodes) are embroiled in internecine battles over sexuality, gender and class.

Finally, and this is a crucial point, less we overstate the extent of this rebellion:  The students represent a minority. South Africa’s labor force is characterized by low numbers of college graduates. There are only about one million students enrolled in the university sector out of a population of 54,9 million people. This raises the question of the linkages of these student movements to the larger unease in the society or to link up with causes and groups beyond campuses.

Nevertheless, the student protests coupled with the growing appeal of the EFF and the restructuring of the trade union movement (the largest union federation split) represent an interesting political moment for South Africa. Until now the most vocal opponents of the ANC government in the public sphere were middle class whites.  What the student protests have achieved is perhaps point to a possible break in the ANC’s middle class black support (who up until now was solidly for the ruling party) and that, more than street protests in faraway townships, they represent a greater threat to the ANC’s hegemony and, more crucially, the party political system.

* This essay was first published in the latest issue of the Africa Workshop Newsletter of the American Political Science Association. The issue focused on the politics of higher education in Africa.

Sean Jacobs

Sean Jacobs is the Founder and Editor of Africa is a Country. He is on the international affairs faculty of The New School in New York.

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