The rise of Fees Must Fall and Rhodes Must Fall has truly made a radical change in the moral fibre of South Africa and has even had a global impact. The global fight towards a decolonised, just and fair society is far from over, but if push comes to shove, young South Africans will, as they have done in the past, roll up their sleeves, get in the arena and grab hold of the horns of power in the fight towards a just and inclusive South Africa that belongs to all who live in it. This 2015 fight by students has accelerated global conversations about colonial symbols and laws in an age of truly imagining and creating a society where the dignity of those who have been historically oppressed can be reclaimed.
The #FeesMustFall movement, which erupted in a nation-wide protest for free education and a national shutdown of universities, was a result of the growing dissatisfaction among young South Africans with empty promises of freedom, and a commitment to take up the challenges of this generation.
“The legacy [of the #FeesMustFall movement] is bigger than the progress made by any political party towards decolonising our country. Vice chancellors admit that they have been addressing these questions without [arriving at] any solutions. Political parties have been making promises and having debates, but they have been too afraid to take these things from the hands of white people. Students in South Africa have created a movement that has had a great impact on the colonial project, more than any political party has been able to do in the new democracy. That legacy cannot be undermined,” says Athi-Nangamso Nkopo, politics lecturer at the University of Cape Town and co-editor of Rhodes Must Fall: The Struggle to Decolonise the Racist Heart of Empire, a book with 32 contributors from over 10 countries, each acknowledging the influence and role of #FeesMustFall in activating movements within their own countries and institutions.
The #FeeMustFall movement had three main demands that ran across the University of the Witwatersrand, University of Cape Town, Rhodes University, Stellenbosch University, the University of the Western Cape, Tshwane University of Technology and others.
It called for the removal of apartheid and colonial symbols through the Rhodes Must Fall movement, where students gathered in numbers to say that these symbols carry with them the historic violence of colonial rule and that we need new symbols that reflect our vision towards an ideal and oppression-free society.
Secondly, the movement called for the opening up of universities, so that those from historically disadvantaged communities can also access higher learning, and the third demand was a change in the makeup of the university, where the staff, the curriculum and institutional cultures are often steeped in deep colonial practices.
“There is a bigger impact with universities throughout the world as a result of #FeesMustFall, with universities that have taken on the fight for the decolonial project. Since #FeesMustFall, movements in Burma, France, the UK, the United States, New Zealand, Gandhi Must Fall in Ghana and other parts of the world have gained momentum in the fight to remove colonial iconography and have serious conversations about decolonisation. The legacy of this movement has resulted in tangible decisions being made about iconography being removed and movements being made towards reparations of stolen artifacts,” says Nkopo.
As it stands, Cambridge University is having conversations about returning artifacts that were stolen from ancient kingdoms in Mali and West Africa. The West is now looking into their legacy of slavery, and what the implications are of what they have gained from slavery, and are seriously contemplating ways of paying reparations to those places from which the colonials plundered to endow their own universities, notes Nkopo.
“Universities in the South and the world are now actively doing work to revise their curriculums so they demonstrate a commitment towards the decolonial project. Universities are boasting of better and diverse inclusion of the student population. The South African government is seriously talking about free education in a way that we have not seen in a new democracy. Free education is a big factor in conversations building up to the upcoming elections. This is all because of the co-operative work that students have had to put in,” says Nkopo.
“What #FeesMustFall has demonstrated is a profound sense of clarity of thought in making demands about creating an inclusive society; it has given us a glimpse of what it means to have the freedom of thought to begin imagining for ourselves what a free and just society looks like outside of colonial rule. “The movement has given us the opportunity to write our history and write our own thinking anew about what we conceive of as decolonisation, what we will be in our countries, in context, our universities, and what knowledge we will produce,” adds Nkopo.
Fees Must fall is not the first wave of decolonisation. The decolonisation movements in Makerere University with the likes of Wole Soyinka, Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o in the 1950s and 1960s and the 1962 African Writers Conference in Kampala created a platform to reimagine African literature, art, politics outside of colonial rule. There was also Lewis Nkosi’s work on decolonising literature, among other contributors of that era. What these movements have in common with #FeestMustFall is the power to galvanise around the decolonial project outside of partisan politics; political parties use these conversations as rhetoric for attaining votes.
“[This is] a movement of political and historical resistance. We are not just imitating those periods and phases, we are critiquing them, because we realise that we are here because there is still a lot more work that needs to be done, and for that work to be done with dignity, we need to adopt intersectional politics within black liberation spaces in our fight for justice. Ours is as much an intellectual movement as it a radical and political movement,” explains Nkopo.
There is no denying that one can’t reflect on the 25 years of democracy without recognizing the impact of #FeesMustFall in the collective consciousness of South Africans and the world towards the decolonisation project. “It is this movement that truly kickstarts progress in the 25 years of democracy, because truth be told, before #FeesMustFall we were not very different from 1995. The demands by students meant that universities had to take seriously what it meant to have a student-centered higher learning environment,” says Nkopo.
Universities and governments have no choice but to listen to and take seriously the voices of young people that call for action in collectively creating a decolonial, free and just society.