Arab Spring should be a model for #FeesMustFall movement

The North African uprisings of 2011, dubbed the “Arab Spring”, which toppled long-standing autocratic leaders and regimes, successfully secured key policy demands and brought about deep societal changes to their countries, offer valuable lessons for South Africa’s #FeesMustFall (#FMF) movement.

A combination of the delayed effects of the 2007-2008 global financial and Eurozone crisis, rising inequality and high levels of corrup­tion, combined with oppressive regimes, pushed together young people, with little prospects of jobs, and financially hard-pressed middle classes, to call on regimes run by small elites who controlled almost every sphere of society for democratic, social and economic reforms, to end the disenfranchisement of their rights.

In North Africa, students were not the vanguard, but as part of the youth they joined with professionals, workers and opposition movements in a cross-sectorial opposi­tion movement.

The South African student upris­ings brought together middle-class and working-class students and different political formations – and in some cases were multiracial too. These uprisings excluded youth outside higher education. Students did take up the demands of blue-collar university workers, protesting against outsourcing.

Yet the South African student #FeesMustFall (#FMF) uprising at its peak has been largely single-issue driven – scrapping tuition fees rather than calling for systemic societal, political, social and economic change, and pushing for change of national leadership also, as was the case in North Africa.


The ante­cedent #RhodesMustFall and #FMF beyond its October 2015 zenith neverthe­less protested against the major systemic issues of inequality and exclusion.

The South African student movement did not build broader society-wide opposition coalitions, as was the case with the North African youth, who allied with broader civil society, professional organisations, trade unions and, in some cases, even opposition parties.

Unlike in South Africa – where the protesters took aim, alternately, at university fees and broader systemic issues – the North African protesters specifically took aim at their failing national governments and leaders, agitating for them to fall.

Where leaders and regimes did not fall because of the youth upris­ings, they were sufficiently under pressure to implement political, social and economic reforms.

In the uprisings against unpopular governments in North Africa, new social media, mobile phones and the Internet that could circumvent the official media, and the rise of new independent media such as Al Jazeera, helped spread the message of revolt.

Not surprisingly state-owned media in North Africa, using “sunshine journalism”, blacked out reports of the protests or underplayed them – only giving air and face-time to pro-government officials, analysts and supporters. In South Africa’s #FMF also effectively used social media via mobile phones to disseminate the message of revolt and government harshness.

Nevertheless, in spite of their successes, the North African uprisings did not turn into genuinely lasting democracies. Upheavals and repression continued, in new manifestations. In most cases, the autocratic regimes ousted by people’s power are often soon replaced by simi­larly autocratic movements and leaders – as can be seen in places like Egypt, where there are now elections, the president is constitutionally limited to only two terms, and has a parliament with diverse political representatives – but women are still vastly underrepresented in public office.

State repression is widespread. Dissenting voices are still quashed. Criticising the security services is still criminalised. Detentions without charges are still frequent.

The Moroccan commentator Rachid Elbelghiti says the Moroccan youth uprisings ‘succeeded in breaking the wall of fear and stripping away the “holiness” of political actors’. However, ‘we failed in achieving the ultimate goal: to position Morocco on the path towards democracy’. To appease the uprisings the Moroccan king intro­duced democratic reforms, including establishing an Equity and Reconciliation Commission with the goal of restoring justice, including financial justice, to those unjustly prosecuted by the regime. The king also reformed the family code to give women more rights in families, such as an equal right to ask for a divorce.

Although the Moroccan king’s reforms also included the separation of powers, power remains firmly in the institution of the king. Human rights and civil society organisations and activists are routinely harassed. Ending corruption was one of the key aims of the Moroccan 20 February movement but the post-uprisings government has made few inroads into tackling corruption.

Following the North African uprisings, Algeria introduced religious and language freedom. It made Tamazight, the language of Algerian first peoples, the second official language and new codes have been introduced to bring gender parity in public employment.

Tunisia has made the most democratic progress following the uprisings; it successfully drafted a new democratic constitution, the Islamist government stepped down, elections were held and new reforms prescribed that an equal number of men and women participate as candidates in the elections.

Why have the North African uprisings not translated into fully-fledged democra­cies?

The North African uprisings have been driven by spontaneous civil groups, youth and the middle classes. They brought different ideologies, classes and sectors together under the umbrella of the civil movement.

Importantly, the North African protesters were unable to turn their movements into formal structures that could take power – and transform the political, social and cultural systems of their societies.

The only formal structures left, former opposition parties, mostly Islamist ones, and the military, in the absence of North African protest movement forming dedicating structures that could take power, grab the space and took over following the post-2011 uprising vacuum.

The Islamist parties and the military that took power in North Africa in the post-2011 uprisings present alternatives to the old autocratic regimes, to liberation nationalist ideologies and to Western style liberalism and the associated neo-liberal donor community driven prescriptions.

The alternative they present, however, is merely a different ideology, namely Islamist, but with the same pre-uprisings political, economic and society arrangements, bar few reforms and new faces.

They do not bring a new progres­sive economic, social and democratic transformation agenda – as envisaged by the activists participating in the uprisings. Clearly, North African youth and civil society movements fighting for democracy, social change and equity will have to think about remaking themselves into political parties ready to take power – like the Islamist social movements, before.

Nevertheless, although in many North African countries the revolutions appear unfin­ished, the uprisings did lay the foundations for new domestic and regional consciousness, assertions and expectations for democratic rights, social justice and accountability.

The uprisings also signal the end of the ability of governments to deflect their own shortcomings to former colonial powers and external powers – and people falling for it. It will be increasingly difficult for leaders to use religion, traditions and culture to get oppressed citizens to accept poverty, lack of rights and corruption. In Morocco, ordinary people have begun to criticise the monarchy. The institution of the monarchy is no longer ‘sacred’ – in itself a leap forward for democracy.

Governing regimes – with the threat of possible revolt, will feel they have to be accountable, even if it is sham accountability. It also means that young people will direct their anger for their current suffering at current governments, not foreign enemies and past colonial powers.

South Africa’s student uprisings have generally focused their anger at symbols of apartheid and colonialism. Of course, the power structures of colonialism and apartheid are largely still intact – and such symbols are stark reminders of lived racial, social and economic inequalities.

Nevertheless, it is crucial that the South African student movement also aims its firepower at failures by the current government and leaders. If not, the South African government will, as in the pre-North African uprising period, deflect its own shortcomings to former apartheid and external powers – and therefore not accept account­ability for its own failures, meaning it will therefore not bring about the desperately needed reforms.

This is an edited extract from Fees Must Fall: Student Revolt, Decolonisation and Governance in South Africa, edited by Susan Booysen and published by Wits University Press. William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand; and Chairperson, Democracy Works Foundation. He is author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times.

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