There are a number of cases in the past decade where Africans have managed to push the conversation beyond liberal reforms as a political goal or did not spent all their energies on the politics of nostalgia, harkening back to a simpler time of national liberation or charismatic leaders.
Young people, a generation with no memory of colonialism, but living through the effects of structural adjustment, globalisation, authoritarianism and neoliberalism, are at the heart of this new politics. The short-lived Egyptian revolution is one example. So were the events in Tunisia that led to the fall of Ben Ali. Then there is #OccupyNigeria and #RevolutionNow in Nigeria. #WalktoWork in Uganda.
Senegal’s pivotal 2012 elections also stand out. There, a youth movement was crucial to the electoral defeat of Abdoulaye Wade. So was the 2014 Civic Broom movement in Burkina Faso to sweep away dictator Blaise Compaoré’s government. The ongoing protests in Sudan and Algeria and the rise of political figures such as Bobi Wine and Stella Nyanzi in Uganda, or the Mathare Social Justice Centre in Kenya can also be viewed as part of this new kind of politics.
There’s also the diaspora: the United States Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, probably the most exciting African politician now taking on Empire; her daughter, the climate rights campaigner, Isra Hirsi; the Somali workers who took on Amazon in Minneapolis-St Paul; the footballer Demba Ba, or Zohran Kwame Mamdani, running for New York State senator as a democratic socialist, among others.
But it is perhaps in South Africa where some of the most interesting developments about imagining a different kind of politics has taken place.
It has been remarkable to watch the political capital, built over a century of popular struggle, get squandered as the ruling ANC became more preoccupied by leadership battles and corrupt dealings. The ANC seemed to forget its supposed historical mission to transform what is still a deeply racist and classist society.
The first wave of movements challenging this status quo was in the early 2000s when a number of social movements emerged to jointly challenge then-president Thabo Mbeki’s disastrous HIV policies and the effects of the government’s neoliberal economic framework on people’s access to housing, affordable electricity and water supplies, quality education and land. These movements challenged the government through court cases, defiance campaigns and breaking the law.
They included groups that moved evicted residents back into their houses or illegally reconnected water and electricity supplies that had been cut by local authorities because of non-payment. But these movements, with the exception of the HIV movement, which saw the ANC as its ally and not its enemy, never managed to grow national profiles or sufficiently shake the status quo; on the latter, the post-apartheid deal between white capitalists and black resistance fighters to govern South Africa as a free-market capitalist country.
It is, however, the newer wave of protests that deserves our attention. More co-ordinated nationally, it happened between 2015 and 2017. They came from students at the country’s universities. They used hashtags: #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall. This group was a beneficiary of the ANC’s policies to open up access to higher education. So it was ironic that it challenged the ANC’s hegemony. Crucially, these student protests, while limited by their narrow base and focus, gave a glimpse of what it could look like if the black majority turned on the ANC.
Their critique was a mix of representational and class politics. They questioned the terms of the post-apartheid settlement premised on racial reconciliation at the expense of a material reckoning with South Africa’s racial and class apartheid; they also rejected the ANC’s version of history. They reminded South Africans that it was the ANC government that oversaw the murders at Marikana (where 34 miners, demanding equal pay and benefits were mowed down by police); that South Africa’s problems are no longer specific to the apartheid legacy, but are the global issues of poverty and inequality, labour rights, corporate responsibility and the behaviour of multinational corporations. They hearkened back to Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement, which filled the void inside the country in the late 1970s.
These students and their supporters demanded that colonial and apartheid public symbols be taken down. Crucially, they demanded free, public higher education and an end to the policy by universities to privatise campus services such as cleaning, catering and security. One consequence of this “outsourcing” was the loss of benefits such as a tuition discount for the children of campus employees.
In a break with past liberation politics, they challenged the patriarchal nature of post-apartheid politics and the widespread oppression of women, especially black women. This is key: the students were black. The government couldn’t dismiss them as ungrateful whites. They were to inherit the state. They included the children of government ministers and senior civil servants.
Unlike their poorer fellows, they were not protesting in nameless townships far from the city centres. Assaults on them headlined the news. This was the first time the ANC’s hegemony over liberation and over the future was being openly challenged. In the end, they succeeded in getting colonial symbols removed, most famously that of Cecil John Rhodes, who represented 19th century British colonial capitalism in South Africa. Second, Jacob Zuma, while president, announced that the government would freeze increases for student fees (but the government did not scrap university fees altogether).
Interestingly, despite their alliances with campus workers, the students struggled to connect their struggles with those of off-campus poor black people over housing, health care, school education and affordable water and electricity.
The verdict on the student movement is still out. We will only know its effect a few years from now. By way of comparison, it’s undeniable that the effects of Occupy Wall Street Movement of 2012 are only being felt on US politics now. As the Fees Must Fall and Rhodes Must Fall generation fan out into the professions or to work in civil society, social movements, trade unions or, crucially, the civil service or as public representatives, we will only be able to judge the real effects of their struggles in South Africa or what kinds of inspirations they can give to struggles elsewhere.
Sean Jacobs is the founder and editor of Africa Is a Country. He is a Shuttleworth Fellow