Student protests have pitted reform against revolution
For more than two decades, any dialogue about change and decolonisation at South Africa’s universities has been smothered. Conservative institutional practices have remained entrenched. It is undoubtedly important that institutions be preserved. But they must also recognise when it’s necessary to move with the times.
The wave of student protests that rocked the country in October and November 2015 offers such a moment for change. The protesters threw up a dual narrative: reform on the one hand, and revolution on the other.
Which narrative will triumph? Will universities reform? Or will they become a site of revolution in 2016 and beyond?
Students feel excluded
Since 1994, there has been only a slow and basic conformity with affirmative action requirements. Universities have registered more students of different races. They’ve hired a smattering of black, coloured and Indian academic and administrative staff. But in reality, universities haven’t changed much at all.
Language policies still marginalise students who don’t speak English as a first language. Campuses are multiracial, but classrooms and curricula remain largely dedicated to one way of seeing the world - through a lens of Eurocentric cultural domination and globalisation. This has contributed to alienating African students from their own academic spaces.
These perceived exclusive institutions have prompted many South African students to say that they don’t feel at home on their campuses. They have taken to reading authors like Aimé Césaire along with philosophers such as Frantz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre to find solace while trapped in the claustrophobic presence of colonial oppressors like Cecil John Rhodes.
They are looking beyond the issue that triggered the 2015 protests – student fees – to the future of African education. To some, a revolution may be construed as the only viable vehicle to reach that future. They view the system as so defunct that it must be torn down with their own hands.
Rapid reform or violent revolution?
It is this view that altered the nature of the student protests. They were, in October, largely organised and peaceful events. By early November calm had returned to some campuses. But others, like the universities of Johannesburg and the Western Cape, the Tshwane University of Technology and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, erupted into mayhem. This happened after President Jacob Zuma had already declared a 0% fee rise for 2016.
The University of the Western Cape’s vice chancellor, Tyrone Pretorius, had to dodge a bottle hurled at him on campus while addressing angry students about their memorandum of demands. This was met by cheers from the Pan Africanist Student Movement of Azania, who were in attendance with the protesters.
The crowd also chanted expletives at the institution’s Student Representative Council. On many campuses student representative councils have been accused by the civic movements of being co-opted by university hierarchies, gaining the tag of “sellouts”.
Instances such as these suggest that compromise and conciliation are not on the agenda.
This highlights the potential of a dual narrative contained within the 2015 protests suggested earlier. Do these students only form a small vandal and criminal aspect within a constitutional movement, or is there a robust portion of the mass movement that harbours revolutionary attitudes?
Where revolutions begin
Revolutions, understood historically and theoretically, constitute a complete destruction of the political and socioeconomic status quo. They are a response to systematic political and economic exclusion, and manifest as either struggles for independence or to fundamentally change a system of governance. For the majority of the 20th Century revolutions resulted in the decimation of fascism, autocracy and Soviet communism as alternatives to now popular multiparty democratic systems.
South Africa after apartheid is a country built on revolutionary foundations that most will contend were democratic. Others might say that South Africa’s liberation movement also carried a – later suppressed – propensity for socialist reconfiguration. This stems from liberation era rhetoric which called for all people to share in the wealth of the country.
One aspect from the student protests that cannot be ignored is the deep distrust shown by students towards the police and other state security services. The police service’s penchant for brutality during the 2012 Marikana massacre and officers’ seemingly unprovoked attacks on some student gatherings has heightened these feelings of fear and distrust.
If protesters start to view the state authorities as hostile guardians of a deeply corrupt government and economy, the consequences may be fatal for South African democracy.
It cuts both ways. In Reflections on Violence, political theorist Hannah Arendt argues that violence and power do not necessarily tie perfectly together. Physical coercion by the state is traditionally understood as a means to enforce the law and the regime’s perceived legitimate power. But in many instances the use of violence against the state’s citizens must be condemned, especially when used gratuitously in a democratic dispensation.
Protest movements should also understand that a turn to violence by their members could severely deplete the ethical high ground they hold at the foundation of a legitimate struggle for social justice.
Space for Constitutionalism?
Constitutional democratic protest is, in theory, calm, rational and inclusive. It purports that the present system is not constitutional and so must be reformed as swiftly as possible. The Freedom Charter of 1955 stated: “The doors to learning and culture shall be opened to all.”
In the 1996 Constitution, this statement was reinterpreted to guarantee that all people will have access to quality education. Most in South Africa, particularly the poor and marginalised, are still waiting for the reforms that will include them in this promise.
Conversely, aspiring revolutionaries within the student movements who feel they have suffered the limits of exclusion by an inadequate democratic project may rally others toward violent upheaval as a means to finally be heard. The revolutionary faction may also want to throw out the Constitution along with the perceived colonised institutions that shackle their growth.
If student and other protests take a further unconstitutional turn, those citizens who still believe in realising the Freedom Charter may well be pushed to the side.
Only time will reveal whether new South African civic movements for social justice will achieve their objectives within constitutional bounds.