Student protests valid in the face of backlash

By Published On: 10th November 2016

Students around the country, through various campus movements, have objected to the ways in which the present remains trapped by the past and how current inequalities and injustices particularly in education, are still being perpetuated through institutions and organisations in post-apartheid South Africa. The student protests of 2015 and 2016 have been characterised by frustration, disillusionment, anger and violence. Underlying the anger expressed by the protesting students, is the slow pace of transformation in the university sector, insufficient funding and ways in which institutional environments have continued to reflect broader inequalities in society, such as persistent racism, patriarchy and classism.

Although the current discourse dominating #FeesMustFall is predominantly concerned with the question of fees, it has also in turn inspired new intellectual explorations which stimulated discussions on questions of identity and lived experience of class and inequality as well as race and property.

Students have largely directed their anger at university management. This has been met with university-sanctioned militarisation of campuses and security reinforcements. The strong presence of police and private security at some institutions has only intensified levels of frustration and violence on campuses.

Protests have escalated and are likely to continue partly because they are rooted in difficult economic realities that cannot be resolved within the current model of student funding but largely because of the lack of consensus and necessary compromise.

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s (IJR) Transformation Audit 2015 argues that for social pacts and consensus to be built, three things need to be in place: “Firstly, there must be a willingness to compromise; secondly, the costs of not compromising must outweigh the perceived gains of standing firm; and, thirdly, there must be organisations that are able to mobilise and restrain their followers in accordance with a strategic and tactical vision.” In some ways, all of the components to reaching consensus are missing from the side of government, university management and protesting students.

The student protests point to issues that make many of us deeply uncomfortable. ‘Transformation’ as a concept questions the ‘post’ of post-apartheid and implies that idea of a better society associated with the struggle have not yet been achieved. These protests are a reminder that there is much work still to be done and that there can be no reconciliation without social justice – not only in our universities but also throughout the economy and at every level in society.

It is crucial that the dialogue on student protest action moves beyond immediate concerns with the destruction of infrastructure and the use of violence. It needs to address the broader interrogation of the role and function of education, and why quality education is still a privilege for those who can afford it rather than a right accessible to all South Africans.

For this to happen it is important to see universities not only as spaces which impart knowledge, but as socialising institutions where students learn how to negotiate their own identities and those of others in the world. Universities are meant to be spaces where ideas are generated, ideas about society, self and one’s place in the world. Spaces where opinions can be challenged, formed and debated. The very nature of universities is to encourage questions, challenges and dissent.

Responses to the student movements range from an outright dismissal of their concerns to branding students as ungrateful hooligans. This might be because despite the important questions that are raised by the student movements, there seems to be a perception that issues raised by protesting students have no confluence with other social groups and constituencies within broader society. It is therefore no wonder that the pronouncements made on student protests assert that this is merely an already privileged few making noise from ivory towers.

More deliberate action is therefore needed from the student movements to meaningfully demonstrate the national significance of the issues raised and how they relate directly to the plight of the broader South African society. This could in turn engender more support from the public. In building relationships with non-student groups, professionals, organisations and other popular formations, student movements can avoid being categorised as populist or immediatist. It will be to our detriment to dismiss the frustration of South African students because in doing so we risk missing a key moment in which to reflect on the shortcomings of our transition. If we do not address the problems they have raised with focus and determination, the issues are likely to fester and explode again in the near future.

Eleanor du Plooy is Project Leader for Ashley Kriel Youth Leadership Development Project at IJR

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