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Outrage: student movement from the margins to the heart of power

Africa has the world’s youngest population and the world’s oldest leaders – a divide challenged by the democratisation of social media

©sydelle willow smith

©sydelle willow smith

Source: Sydelle Willow Smith

South Africa has a long history of student protest. Black students were historically excluded from tertiary education – and therefore power – and the dramatic surge in numbers since 1994 means South African university students are a unique group, both from and of the margins yet now occupying the centre of society (or at least close to it). Historically protests were directed at white or apartheid rule and conducted away from white urbanites for whom the city was a place of pleasure and leisure, not violent and often fatal protest. The spatial organisation of South African cities situates black townships on the periphery of the city (Soweto in Johannesburg, Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain in Cape Town, for example), reinforcing a sense of being outside the power structure and the amenities that make up contemporary urban life.

‘By bringing the protest from the edges, to the heart of power, the students were able to shift the entrenched axes of democracy’

Similarly, most, formerly white, South African universities – Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town – are in city centres and in the centres of power. Conversely, formerly black universities – Fort Hare, for example – are often elsewhere (and were clearly second-class institutions). In 2015 and 2016, two student protest movements rocked South African universities. In 2015, #RhodesMustFall was initially directed at a statue of arch-colonialist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, but spread rapidly to encompass a range of legitimate concerns about the speed and pace of transformation in South Africa post-democracy in 1994. The movement quickly dominated the headlines, both locally and globally, as did the official police and government responses. Following a university council vote, taken late at night, the statue of Rhodes was quietly removed. The #FeesMustFall movement followed six months later at universities all over the country, in reaction to proposed fee hikes, continuing where #RhodesMustFall left off.

By bringing the protest from the edges, where such protests would have taken place under apartheid, to the heart of power, the students were able to shift the entrenched axes of democracy, which for so long has kept dissent and protest out of sight.

The issues bubbling under the surface of the students’ anger have been troubling the fledgling democracy for the past 25 years: the ‘transformation’ miracle (‘transformation’ understood in the South African context as a multi-faceted process encompassing questions of race, class, privilege, wealth and power) is felt by the majority black population to have been a pipe dream. The white elite have been replaced by a black elite and the promise of wealth, prosperity and upwards class mobility promised to the formerly disadvantaged masses seems to have evaporated.

From the Soweto Uprising on 16 June 1976 – sparked by the Bantu Education Department’s decision to impose Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in schools – until the advent of democracy in 1994, successive protest marches, largely by schoolchildren, established a pattern of urban resistance that few could have predicted would one day be directed against black rule. The 2015 and 2016 protests were pivotal in opening up debates at the tertiary education level, which addressed deep structural issues to do with race, class and power, which had largely been swept under the carpet in the two decades since the end of minority rule.

‘Social media networks have transformed the landscape of debate, moving away from the traditional loci of power’

The images of the police crackdown at the Universities of Cape Town, Witwatersrand, Pretoria and KwaZulu-Natal went viral online and on social media, adding to the sense of disbelief at both the depths of outrage and the draconian responses of the authorities. In the same way that university protests resituate the debate from the periphery closer to the heart of power, social media networks have transformed the landscape of debate, moving away from the traditional loci of power. Plotting an alternative geography away from broadcasting houses, courts, municipal buildings and the state’s appointed authorities within them – mayors, government officials, police (particularly important in the apartheid regime) and the army – mobile technologies disseminate information and debate to whomever has a smart phone, often feeding on disturbingly real imagery. A female student, bleeding profusely from a head wound; Cecil Rhodes, unceremoniously hacked off his perch; the then-Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande’s gleeful face.

The outrage experienced and expressed by students, mobilising through social media networks, quickly established students as a political force to be reckoned with. Africa has the world’s youngest population (average age 19.8) and the world’s oldest leaders (average age 72.7): a divide challenged by the democratisation of social media. On 22 October 2015, Blade Nzimande made the statement that if students do not accept university fee hikes, ‘we’ll start our own movement. Students must fall’. Within minutes, #StudentsMustFall began trending. Nzimande was eventually ousted by (now former) President Zuma in a cabinet reshuffle and will be remembered more for the memes and hashtags, including #BladeMustFall; it too went viral within minutes.

This piece is featured in the AR May 2019 issue on Periphery – click here to purchase your copy today