When I was a youth, each January 8, the African National Congress, then the dominant liberation movement against apartheid, issued a statement to commemorate its founding and embolden its followers. They were a big deal. Every statement came with a theme in which they dedicated the year to some group (women, the “comrades”, the generic “people”). A few times they may have declared “The Year of the Youth.” South Africans were up against the apartheid state and needed all the help it could get. While the ANC was winning the propaganda war abroad, at home with most of our parents brow-beaten or too afraid of apartheid’s power, it was young people–in schools, on campuses—and with nothing to lose – who stepped up. Other liberation movements competed for youth loyalties with the ANC, but the Charterists–as ANC aligned movements were collectively known–captured young people’s imaginations most thoroughly.
Many years later, we are free. Though some of those who were youth leaders have withdrawn from politics, a good many have settled into government jobs as ministerial advisors, spokespersons, party apparatchiks or tenderpreneurs. The ANC Youth League is now led by politically connected businessmen in their late 30s or by party loyalists; captured by the Guptas or deployed in increasingly factional and aggressive ANC succession battles.
For a long time, most observers of South African public life dismissed the cohort of young people who were born in the 1990s – the “born-frees”. There was a sense that they lacked political consciousness because they were born into a society in which they no longer needed to fight so viscerally for their basic rights.
As the years flew by after 1994, the ANC still issued January 8 statements, but nobody read them. As poor communities suffered at the hands of an ANC government whose police evicted them from already cramped and substandard housing, shut off their water, locked them up or murdered or shot at them when they protested, many people assumed that most young people simply wanted to shop. Celebrity culture and consumer capitalism had replaced militancy. Or so it seemed.
Then came Marikana in August 2012. Police killed thirty-four striking miners in the Northwest province; the media captured the scene and replayed it nightly on the news. Some expected mass protests or a revitalization of worker-led movements in response. This was not forthcoming. But, Marikana changed things. Instead of a Workers’ Party (which has disappointingly proved to be a non-starter), the enduring legacy of Marikana is the Economic Freedom Fighters, a party of young people formed in the wake of the tragedy. Its leader Julius Malema came from the ANC Youth League. Brash and opinionated, he had earlier pledged to kill to keep the country’s unpopular and corrupt President, Jacob Zuma, in power. But Malema had been expelled from the ANC, partly for publicly embarrassing President Zuma and the ANC’s national executive committee over the lack of racial and economic transformation and the violence of Marikana. Though some have derided the EFF and Malema for shock tactics and publicity stunts, inside Parliament (and for television and Youtube viewers) the EFF has emerged as a formidable foe for the ANC. The EFF clearly operates in the idiom of working class young people; its protests and putdowns of the ruling party are made for the social media age. Its red overalls are photogenic and Instagrammable and EFF MP’s quips funny and shareable. The EFF has also revitalized youth politics and may have signaled to young people–most with no memory of apartheid and for whom a black government equals power–to exercise their citizenship.
Though protests are common in postapartheid South Africa–think the social movements around housing, water, electricity and, most significantly, AIDS that started in the late 1990s–it would be around higher education where the impetus for a new democratic politics would take form. Until university, public education is free in principle and government spending does not discriminate by race. However, little has been done to improve black primary and high schools schools characterized by overcrowding, no electricity or water supply and dilapidated infrastructure. Black high school students organized by organisations such as Equal Education, have done much to shame the Minister of Basic Education and remind the government of its obligation. Though their campaigns have been creative, Equal Education never defined the mainstream news cycle in the way some of their older brothers and sisters at South Africa’s twenty-one universities would do in 2015 and 2016.
University students not only made the connections between the ways colonialism and apartheid reproduce racial and class inequalities in South Africa, laid bare the ANC’s broken promises and exposed the negative effects of neoliberalism, but also magnified class differences and the failures of university administrations and curriculums to racially transform. Ironically of course it took a rise in political organizing on formerly white universities to push these issues into the public domain – for years activists on mainly black campuses had been raising similar complaints. Still, the students were able to make vital connections to outsourcing on campuses and, crucially, began to agitate for free, public higher education.
In what has since taken on mythical proportions, university students disrupted campuses, invented new vocabularies (“decolonization” for one) and opened debates about the nature, extent and compromises which characterized the political transition from apartheid. In the process, they became the most significant national, social movement since the end of apartheid. But also the first middle class black grouping to openly challenge the government and white business on a grand scale. By the end of 2015, the country’s president Jacob Zuma caved in when he announced (at least temporarily) no future fee increases. The movement has since stalled due to a mix of political factors and reflecting the general stasis in South African politics, but its impact is still felt widely.
I have followed much of this from afar–I have been living in the United States for the last 16 years–and noticed the changes on annual visits to South Africa and in interviews and interactions with some of these young leaders and activists. (In mid-2015, for example, I was fortunate enough to interview some leaders of Rhodes Must Fall and Open Stellenbosch in Cape Town.) On my most recent visit to South Africa this year, I tagged along with my wife, a professor of politics at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City, her colleague, and a group of her students on a study tour. The American students had studied South Africa’s early 1990s constitutional negotiations; for the South African students their protests attempt to undo what they consider the limits put on decolonization by those negotiations.
Between visiting political landmarks in Cape Town and Johannesburg like the Apartheid Museum, the District 6 Museum and Robben Island, we also met with small groups of student activists in both places. The visiting students hung out socially with young people in Soweto, Braamfontein and central Cape Town. Some of the American students were involved with student government and anti-Trump protests back in New York City. I wanted to know what they made of South African young people.
Like all of them, Maria Andrews, a dancer who also studied political science, was particularly taken by the South African experience and youth politics. Afterwards I asked her what she remembers about her interactions with South African young people. In her telling, the South Africans she met come across as decidedly postapartheid people. For them apartheid is ancient history. As far as they are concerned, the ANC shapes the reality that they confront. “My experiences with young South Africans revealed how aware they are of injustices and how vocal they are about the lack of social rights. Political rights have been given to all, but the social rights and deep institutional change is yet to come to fruition. Young South Africans are looking for something new in the political landscape and many of them are demanding change now in places very personal to them.”
What Maria was describing was the opportunities and challenges presented by the crisis of postnationalist politics: what comes after the ANC and its alliance, now that their politics have run its course. The question is whether young South Africans are up for it. It’s not yet clear to what extent these young people are still in thrall to the ANC’s power (even the EFF flirts publicly with “returning” to the ANC, and many student leaders understandably find whites’ criticism of Zuma hard to stomach). Even for those quick to challenge the whiteness of capital or the whiteness of universities, it can be hard to confront the fact that it is the ANC which has controlled the state for the last two decades. Despite the fact that the ANC haven’t done enough to use that power to improve the lives of the black majority, instead squandering it to enrich a small, politically connected clique and to implement neoliberal economic policies, the ANC “brand” still compels. And though some parlayed their experiences with Fees Must Fall into off-campus struggles (take Reclaim the City or Ndifuna Ukwazi’s housing struggles in Cape Town or putting violence against women and patriarchy firmly on the agenda), very few youth leaders can fully interrogate the relevance of their symbolic struggles to the wider population. Finally, in their rush to adopt and mimic popular, overtly racialized discourses from elsewhere (especially the United States), they risk missing the rich vein of possibility to be mined from South Africa’s own history of building cross-class, cross-race and mass-based movements.
The kids could still be alright. Maybe.
* An edited version of this post appeared in the South African newspaper, City Press, as part of a partnership with Thought We Had Something Going.