South Africa’s young activists

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South Africa’s young activists


(c) Desmond Bowles, Creative Commons

A new generation of black activists in South Africa don’t have the ‘patience’ of their parents. Chris Webb writes about how the education system is now at the centre of their protests.

In October 2015, there were strong protests in universities and colleges across South Africa about a planned10-per-cent increase in tuition fees. The protest is called the ‘FeesMustFall’ movement. The protests now come every year. Every year brings the possibility of fee increases and the protests start again.

Many see these protests as the beginning of a new generation of young activists, something like those who fought against apartheid. But this time the protest is not with the legal racial order but with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the way it seems to do nothing about economic and racial inequality. Some say that the movement is ‘decolonial’, after students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) successfully called for the statue of Cecil Rhodes to be taken away. He was the imperialist and white supremacist.

The protests certainly show how young people are very frustrated, but they are not really challenging the inequality in South Africa. But the protests show how the education system divides people and is now a place of political struggle.

Bad education

Under apartheid, education in South Africa was racially divided. ‘Bantu’ education at the primary and secondary level was there to prepare black South Africans for low-wage work. In higher education, non-white institutions trained a small number of public-sector workers, like nurses and teachers. Whites-only universities trained very skilled graduates who would find well-paid work.

The system divided races but it also had some unplanned effects. The 1976 Soweto protests by high-school students came after the fast increase in education for black children, and the South African Student Organization, led by anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, was important in challenging the government.

After the end of apartheid in the early 1990s, in South Africa there was an increase in free education at the primary and secondary schools. But there is still inequality. Private schools, which were mainly for white students, were then for black and white students. But the schools were allowed to increase their fees. In this way, they kept the education system unequal.

In the same way, changes to the university system did not help racial inequality The white universities received more money and the mainly black universities received less money.

Like many student protests across the world, there was a big increase in people going to university and wanting to go to university before the FeesMustFall movement started. The deracialization of universities has led to increased demand. The numbers of black students increased from 59 per cent in 2000 to 71 per cent in 2015. Gloria Sekwena was trampled and died in 2012, when she was waiting in line with her son to register at the University of Johannesburg, Her death is a tragic sign of how big the demand is.

Family pressures

Like the student protests in the United Kingdom in 2010 and in Quebec in 2012, debt is a big problem. Siya is a second-year engineering student at UCT. He lives in Khayelitsha, a township outside Cape Town, and he is the first from his family to go university. Siya’s fees are some of the highest in the country and he is paying for his education through student loans.

‘With the debt we have to ask ourselves, what about our parents?’ he tells me. ‘They are hoping that we will help them when we work.’

For thousands of students from poor families a degree is not just an individual dream but the hope of whole families and communities. They see it as the answer to a number of problems in their communities. These problems are themselves the result of South Africa’s racial capitalism. This puts very great pressure on these students, which richer, white students do not have.

It is not a surprise that Siya describes FeesMustFall as a movement that ‘motivates’ him. ‘But debt is killing us,’ he says ‘They say you will enjoy university, but these debts are increasing each year.’

Debt is a very important problem but the protesters also see the way they are changing traditional politics. Sechaba is a student activist with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The party started after an ANC split and attracts the young, who see that change is too slow.

‘The ANC cheated us, the youth of South Africa,’ he says. ‘They gave us a dream of a nation where everyone will be happy. We must go to white kids and white kids will come to us and we must act like nothing happened.’

The dream of a happy nation gave the hope of peace between black and white after the 1994 democratic elections. But it is not the situation of many young black South Africans, who do not have the right education, housing, or employment. More radical than our parents

Sechaba says, ‘We are more radical than the ANC, Young people don’t have the kind of patience that our fathers and mothers have’. We can see this in the way popularity of groups like the EFF is increasing. They make the radical-left demands that the ANC stopped making a generation ago. They want the sharing of land and nationalization of mines.

‘The only choice for young people is to make their voice heard through protest,’ Sechaba says.

For ten years neighbourhood groups have made the kind of protests that FeesMustFall are making. They are disrupting traffic and public services to pressure the state to give clean water, sanitation, housing. and employment for all.

FeesMustFall does not yet mean there is real change in politics in South Africa. But it does show the frustration with the slow changes in socio-economics, specifically among young people. There is also a new interest among young South Africans in black revolutionary thinkers, such as Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon, who may give ideas on how the past can help them change the future.

The protests against higher education fees are a beginning, which must also work to change inequality in all its forms.

Chris Webb is studying for a PhD at the University of Toronto. He is a Research Associate at the International Labour Research and Information Group in Cape Town.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).