Interview: Different conditions on the campuses, different protests

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Hans Pienaar interviews Raymond Suttner over the #FeesMustFall and related movements and issues arising from the student uprising and the debates that followed.

What do you think the students have achieved so far?

The student movements were more than one thing and had a different character in the different universities, so that when we speak of the protests or what students achieved or failed to achieve we need to keep in mind the different conditions on the campuses and the conditions they encountered during protests, the demands they made and how these were articulated

What was seen at UCT, Rhodes and Wits was very different from that at the historically black universities like North-West University (Mahikeng campus), University of the Western Cape (UWC) and converted technikons with primarily black students, like Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) and Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). The composition of the student bodies, the character of the demands they made and the extent of violence meted out against them, as well as their own predilection to violence, differed in these two types of universities.

Raymond Suttner (picture: YouTube)

But weren’t there common themes?

There were common issues, as with the demand that “fees must fall”, but there were also areas of focus and theorisation of their understandings that were found in one set of universities and not in others. In other words, the traditions and resources and general intellectual atmosphere at the historically white universities made it better ground for the emergence of various theorised understandings of what they were doing.

Again, although there was violence by and against the students in almost all, if not all, universities it was less pronounced in the historically white universities than in the historically black universities.

Of course, there were also different dynamics and issues that arose in formerly Afrikaans-speaking universities like University of Pretoria, University of the Free State and Stellenbosch University. Interestingly the Economic Freedom Fighters seems to be in the forefront of the SRC and #FeesMustFall in UP and UFS.

If I’m not mistaken the Democratic Alliance leads the SRC in Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and Fort Hare. I don’t have adequate information, but it would be important to know if they also led #FeesMustFall, and if not, how #FeesMustFall related to the SRCs in both universities and what the gains have been.

In generalising, what is important in itself is that #FeesMustFall was a socio-economic protest, problematising the conditions of entry into a supposedly equal society, and in some ways raising the question of continuity of elements of apartheid inequalities into the present.

At one level we speak of students in a university as if they are one thing. But the students protests highlighted the quite different reality that governs the entry and conditions of existence as students of black students, compared with white students. I know it has been known to academics and others in universities, like Wits, that there are social conditions prevailing among black students that impede their studies. I heard this informally some time ago when I was not a staff member. But the protests have made this a public issue. The student movements rendered visible what had been below the surface.

So you don’t see a united front?

The unity of the #FeesMustFall movement was fragile. That much could be seen up here at Wits, and unlike the SRC, which apparently led the Wits movement, the #FeesMustFall movement generally purported to operate without leaders or organisational structures and now it seems almost totally separate from the SRC.

In some ways this may have seemed a pure type of democracy, but it meant that there were not structures that could take responsibility for decisions or that no one had the authority to call together all supposed adherents to review what had been done, to pause and ensure that the movement did not dissipate or fracture. Now none of this has happened and, in consequence, my understanding is that at Wits and UCT and Rhodes there is considerable division.

Apart from inequality as a continuity, would you highlight other issues?

In many universities, though again this was mainly at the formerly white ones, there has been a call for, and in some cases an agreement over, decolonising the curricula. My sense is that this is a very difficult demand to meet. How do the students ensure it is achieved and how do they monitor what is done? Presumably the same staff that have taught the colonial curriculum will have to teach whatever comprises a decolonised curriculum. This is a very important demand. But it may not have been adequately considered how it will be realised.

Another factor that distinguished this student movement from most earlier ones was their taking up issues of campus workers and forming an alliance over the outsourcing of workers and winning gains regarding the rights of these workers and also the access of their children to these universities.

In some universities the rise of women, and at that many of them “queer” women (meaning from LBGTIQA communities), often as leaders emphasising intersectionality, the connection of various struggles and patriarchy has been important. At the same time, they acknowledge that this coexists with considerable sexual violence within the student movements.

And the future?

The students put on the agenda issues that have been under the surface or ignored. In some cases they may not have adequate means for ensuring they are implemented or be organised on a basis to secure this. I also think that the way they are organised or not organised in the case of #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall is unconducive to ongoing activities, where one needs formal structures for evaluating what has been done and how to take it further.

How does the concept of transformation differ from that of decolonising? Has there been a shift from the former towards the latter?

I see “transformation” as a generic term referring to a range of changes that substantially alter a set of conditions from one set of relationships, with corresponding practices, to another. Transformation may apply to a variety of conditions and situations. In the social and political terrain it may constitute a democratic advance, but I imagine it can also refer to a setback. “Transform” means to change the character of something and it would include decolonisation as a species of transformation, which is a wider concept than decolonisation.

“Decolonisation” is a more specific word and cannot be equated with “transformation”.

At the moment decolonisation in South Africa is addressed primarily to the universities (their “white” character and their Eurocentric curricula) whereas my understanding would be that it happens within a society as a whole, which may have already transformed fundamentally, but may not have recognised the applicability of the word “decolonisation” to aspects of its present situation.

I say “its present situation”, because it will be recalled that the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party referred to apartheid South Africa as a special type of colonialism. It was argued that the engagements between white South Africa in general and black South Africa entailed relationships of power that were akin to those of a conventional colonial state. This despite there being internal differences between whites as a group, some of whom were wealthier or poorer, and blacks considered as whole, within which group there were also wealth differences.

But it was not a conventional colonial state, because the coloniser and colonised occupied the same territorial unit and it was accepted by all except some extreme African chauvinists that all inhabitants (including whites) belonged here forever. Some of the “Fallists” have revived this anti-white discourse, though I am not sure how much effect it will have in practice.

So the term “colonial” in application to South Africa is not new, but what the current student movements have done is to deepen that understanding and widen the areas of its applicability or to highlight what has been neglected. It is important that we understand a range of concepts as having changing meanings, as we understand possibilities for greater freedom. There is a song from the United States South of the 20th century, “Freedom is a constant struggle”, which is the title of a new book by Angela Davis, and which encapsulates the notion that freedom is never finally won. For those who emerge from colonialism, barriers to freedom may be legally removed, but it certainly remains an ongoing task to identify and eradicate all obstacles and open fresh possibilities for realising our talents and freedoms.

Photo: Naomi Bruwer

Among the most impressive contributions were those of people like Khetiwe Marais and a Nigerian fellow on the need for education in vernacular languages. This was also the demand, or wish, from young authors who have made their mark writing on student life. Can one talk about decolonisation or transformation if higher education just continues in English?

This entails at least two issues. Many or most students want higher education in English because it is one of the points of entry into studying many courses and also for successful careers, and they see indigenous languages as impediments insofar as they may wish to pursue these studies and careers, and certainly the books they need to read are mainly in English and in postgraduate studies also in other foreign languages.

That English and, to a limited extent, Afrikaans have this status of being necessary for academic and other careers is related to the apartheid colonial past and the lack of development of African languages. It is my impression that insufficient has been done after 1994 as well.

But I agree that it is important to understand that there are riches in the languages and cultures of all the peoples of South Africa and these languages remain the preferred mode of expression in many contexts for some students, and some writers have shown that these languages can be developed as written languages and enjoyed that way by those who speak the languages and others who learn them.

How does the current movement compare with the struggle days, or is that it unfair?

I have not thought particularly of comparing the student movements with student and other movements of the period prior to 1994. Perhaps that is necessary, but I have not done so. In any case, it is significant that sizeable numbers distance themselves from the dominant stream of the liberation struggle, that led by the ANC, as is evidenced by their drawing on Steve Biko and Robert Sobukwe and non-ANC symbolism, like the use of the name Azania to refer to South Africa. That is not to exhaust the sources of inspiration they embrace.

As Fanon suggests, “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it.” Each generation has to find its own paths and they are doing this. What worries me, however, is that not only do they not draw on the struggle imagery or the political tradition of the ANC, which is their right, but they are in many cases fairly ignorant of the history of South African resistance and make statements that are just very generalised and lacking in the complexity that comes with interrogating the history. One can see this particularly in their reference to the settlement of 1994 and the role of Nelson Mandela.

It’s important to know history, because one draws lessons especially in politics, where one is not just trying to prove a point but to be guided by the past on actions that one may or may not take in the future.

Speaking of decolonisation, much of the decolonisation discourse comes straight from American campuses. I’m thinking off-hand of the expression "feeling uncomfortable" with a practice. It may work in the USA, but it sounds an odd complaint in South Africa. Isn’t the decolonisation discourse itself too colonised? Aren't there too many cues from America?

I did not think of this as the origin of what they are saying, though I am aware that there may be some borrowing from the #blacklivesmatter discourse. Maybe I am missing things. I think that very much that is raised by the various Fallist movements and writers from or sympathetic in various degrees towards some of these movements are very indigenous problems and if they draw on colonial experiences it seems that it would be more from Fanon than from the USA. But I may be wrong. I think that the experience of curricula that draw almost entirely from scholars in the North, speaking here of the humanities and social sciences, is something that is very much a problem found here in South Africa and in other parts of Africa and Asia and is applicable in a different way in the USA. In the USA in feminism, for example, many black writers used to argue that the white feminists did not incorporate the specific experience of black women that was not encompassed in a generalised notion of women or men. This was not colonial, but fairly contemporary, ie about 40 years ago and onwards.

One got the impression that the students were not always understanding what they were doing, as if they had imbibed theory and skewed history, and not really knowing how to apply it to their predicament?

One cannot generalise very easily. I am not sure how widely any theories are diffused amongst protesters. We do not know whether this is the preserve of some section of the student population and whether or not those who theorise are deeply involved in the organisations, and also, there is not a very clear relationship between some of the theoretical writings and the actions.

The problem again relates to the SRCs’ being organised decision-making structures and the Fallist movements in the many cases where they are not also the SRC and are distinct bodies without having organisational structures. The result is that if something is done they may claim no responsibility. At UCT, Max Price’s office was bombed, paintings were burnt, and other things, and no one claimed responsibility. This was justified in social media as part of the overall decolonisation movement in the university, but no person or organisation seems to have accepted responsibility. I recall hearing one of the leading figures being interviewed on radio and he said he was nowhere near the place where the paintings were burnt – etc etc.

There was an interesting tweet that I saw saying people are outraged about the burning of colonial paintings but do not care about violence against black bodies. At first I thought, what is the connection? But then I considered that they were making a valid point (even if one questions the burning of paintings as a form of protest).

We must accept that there is a disjuncture between the outrage that the burning of the paintings evoked and the responses to the daily violence meted out against black bodies in society at large and also when security is applied on all campuses, but especially on the mainly black campuses.

The students have been developing quite sophisticated analyses around black bodies, how these are depicted as threatening and, as Achille Mbembe says maybe in another context, “animalistic”. So insofar as black bodies represent a threat the violence perpetrated against black people is meeting a real or imagined threat. A lot of this is derived from how they read or misread Fanon.

What do you make of all the racist expressions, the “Fuck all Whites” graffiti, occupying hostels and serving only blacks?

As indicated, the students in many cases reject the non-racial tradition of the ANC and some fairly mature writers feed into this in relating non-racialism to what they see as an ideology of forgiveness, rainbowism and reconciliation.

Now these students are rejecting this and are not afraid to use anti-white expressions, black racism, although some Black Consciousness people (and some of Biko’s writings) suggest that black people cannot be racists by virtue of their lack of power. But what happens when they do have power over some or want power? In any case, attacks on foreigners have a racist element, so I am not persuaded that there cannot be black racism.

It is important for white people to roll with the punches in order to try to have a dialogue and not charge them with hate speech or similar actions if that can be avoided, if there is a possibility of engaging. I try to be very cool when someone says some anti-white thing to me.

It is another thing to advocate violence against whites, and there is a little bit or maybe a fair amount of incitement to commit violence against whites. I am not sure how seriously to take it, but would see it as part of a dialogue. Many of these are very immature people and their anti-whitism is a reflex action against the racism they have experienced, and I am not sure how much violence against whites per se has resulted. So I am personally not worried about that. At the same time, such statements should be stopped and if there is genuine incitement then people ought to be charged.

Occupying hostels and serving blacks seems to be part of the same phenomenon and sporadic rather than a pattern.

What worries me is that we are having no intergenerational dialogue and there are no accepted people on the side of the older generation with whom they are prepared to dialogue. That is what I see as the most important task of the day, to find credible parties on the side of the older generation who could engage in dialogue with the students.

In the past, when students would not go back to school, and similar issues, there used to be such dialogues, but the ANC has become delegitimised and that means that they cannot perform this role and we need to look for others.

There has also been a lot of ethnic profiling, for instance at Tuks, where the students made a hullabaloo about Afrikaans, when all lectures are given in English. Wasn't the focus on Afrikaans a distraction? Was that perhaps a strategic mistake to devote so much energy to a peripheral issue?

I did not know that there was a fuss when lectures were already in English. The focus on Afrikaans is important, though I am not quite sure how best there can be a resolution of the question that satisfies those whose mother tongue may not be English, but would like to be taught in English, and Afrikaans mother-tongue people who would like to be taught in Afrikaans. Parallel medium and simultaneous interpretation do not seem to work well.

Where the majority of students are Africans who are at a disadvantage in Afrikaans, clearly instruction in Afrikaans represents a part of the colonial or apartheid character of the institutions. At one point some academics and the vice-chancellor at Stellenbosch were arguing that English should be the main medium of instruction. Now they speak of equality between English and Afrikaans, but how that is to be achieved is unclear to me.

At UP the demand for Sotho has also been raised, but it does not seem to have come from African students but from AfriForum. In all these formerly Afrikaans universities there needs to be a very careful dialogue before decisions are taken. If one rushes these or has them come from the top, or purely in response to threats, then the decisions will be unsustainable.

When I speak of Afrikaans as being associated with the colonial and apartheid character of the institutions I am aware that Afrikaans is also a language without such connotations and that it can have liberatory connotations.

Protests at the US Woordfees 2016 (photo: Izak de Vries)

By “ethnic profiling” I mean the constant reference to Stellenbosch’s Afrikaans environment as the origin of apartheid thinking, when it was also the origin of Afrikaans anti-apartheid thinking, the plans to burn down the Africana collection at Tukkies because it supposedly was devoted to Afrikaans, and the attempts to disrupt the Woordfees at Stellenbosch because it was in Afrikaans and therefore was connected to AfriForum, when the latter was not involved in the festival at all.

I am not really acquainted with the details to which you refer, the disruption of the Woordfees at Stellenbosch University, in the sense that I have not heard all the arguments that were made, and I can’t comment on that. I also did not pick up the plans to burn the Africana collection at UP, so do not wish to comment on that.

I think I said before that I believe that Afrikaans is not simply the language of the oppressor, although for many years of my life I experienced Afrikaans as a language of aggression and repression in the prisons and with the police. In some ways the prison warders and police, who were not all Afrikaans-speaking, though the convention was to refer to them all as the “boers”, represented the most violent aspects of apartheid and sought to humiliate and demean those they captured. We resisted much of this, but that was the way in which, using the Afrikaans language, the authorities sought to diminish the dignity of other human beings. Incidentally, although not used directly with us, the term used to refer to a prisoner was “eenheid”, which I believe most commonly means “unit”, which carries connotations of a thing.

This was obviously part of the daily face of authority that black people encountered under apartheid.

But Afrikaans is not only the language of oppression; many Afrikaners used Afrikaans to advance an anti-apartheid, liberatory message, notably Bram Fischer QC and Beyers Naudé.

Bram Fischer referred to Afrikaners as the first freedom fighters on this continent and he ended his statement from the dock by quoting Paul Kruger on freedom:

In prophetic words, in February 1881, one of the great Afrikaner leaders, addressed the President and Volksraad of the Orange Free State. His words are inscribed on the base of the statue of President Kruger in the square in front of this Court. After great agony and suffering after two wars they were eventually fulfilled without force or violence for (of) my people.

President's Kruger's (The) words were:

“Met vertrouen leggen wy onze zaak open voor de geheele wêreld. Het zy wy overwinnen, het zy wy sterven: de vryheid zal in Afrika ryzen als de zon uit de morgenwolken”

Translated as:

“With confidence we lay our case before the whole world. Whether we win or die, freedom will rise in Africa, like the sun from the morning clouds.”

               (Accessed from

What Fischer recognised was that the South African / Anglo-Boer / Boer War illustrates that the Afrikaners were simultaneously oppressors of black people and also anti-imperialist against the British.

Of course, Afrikaans is not only the language of white people and that is an important factor that needs to be factored into any way we aim to resolve the problems associated with the place of the language in the future of this country.

If I may return to Fischer’s statement: it raises important questions regarding legacies, statues and other matters. There is a move to remove the statue of Paul Kruger, but what Fischer shows is that the statue bears characteristics that are not simply ones of oppression, and this needs to be brought into the debate about all legacies. Some have wanted to remove Gandhi’s statue, possibly because his early statements were racist. But Gandhi raises different issues from Kruger. He was always evolving, and by the time of the formation of the SANNC (early name for the ANC) he welcomed its formation and he formed close relationships with some ANC leaders and continued to have contact in the decades that followed. This has been extensively documented by ES Reddy and others (but there is an alternative view in work by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed).

One of the concepts that came across from the Caribbean and the UK especially is that of whiteness. Does it exist? And can whites ever get rid of whiteness?

I do not know of this as the origin of the concept of whiteness. A phenomenon can exist without being conceptualised, so that it is not significant for me that the concept may have come from overseas.

I understand it as useful because it refers to patterns of privilege that accrue to whites by virtue of being white, whether in apartheid South Africa, post- apartheid South Africa, the USA and the UK, among others. The privileges attached to whiteness are not due to necessarily having supported apartheid or even being born during the apartheid period, but they are advantages that are historically accrued by whites as social capital, advantages that we have had in life just by being born into a white family, in an environment which experienced racial inequality and where many of those inequalities persist despite the fall of legislative apartheid. These advantages are not the same, as some white families are poorer than others and the advantages are fewer than those of those deriving from the wealthy and closer to the experience of some black people. Equally, there are many black people who have become wealthy and there are some billionaires. But whiteness still refers to unequal opportunities that accrue to whites to get on in life.

Yes, one can “get rid of whiteness” insofar as it refers to systematic inequality deriving from the location of whites in relation to black people. Once we change that relationship, then whiteness as power becomes insignificant. We will remain white, but it will not signify a power relationship that is unequal.

Relating to the student protests, when a black person goes to a white university the whites generally live nearby or have good accommodation and transportation and do not have to worry about the next meal. Many black people have to send some of their grant money, if they have that, home to care for relatives. They go hungry, they often do not have places to sleep, and sleep in lecture rooms or corners of the library or illegally in someone’s room. In some cases they do need income and they are forced into commercial sex work as the only way they can find to acquire this.

Whiteness is like masculinity in gender relationships. It is an unacknowledged quality that confers power and advantages. It needs to be identified and addressed.

Universities that protested against apartheid (the “open universities”) sometimes feel offended at being accused of having qualities that are seen as “white” and that make black students feel unwelcome, as if they do not really belong there. But one is not referring to the subjective attitudes of the authorities, though some may hold racist views. One is referring to structures and relationships and these may be inhabited by people without prejudice as well as some who have these.

In the same way, when women went into parliament in great numbers in 1994 it was an institution that was generally conceived as a masculine institution. There were insufficient toilets for women and the first woman speaker found that there was a urinal in her office.

In fact, in the case of black students in white universities they did not belong there until recently, hardly being admitted at all or only with special permits, so it is not surprising that institutions intended for whites sometimes without whites’ realising it have qualities that signify whiteness. What do I mean by that? The very assumption that the students in a lecture room are meeting just as students with no barriers or differences between them does not recognise why some African students are late, that it is not “African time”, but that they have not had the reliable transport of the white students but had to take taxis that will often not leave till they are full, etc etc. Do lecturers consider the conditions under which different categories of students study – access to electricity, wi-fi etc? The assumption of sameness, that all are one, is insufficient, for it is in fact a denial of the significant differences.

The Rhodes statue is an obvious case of white symbolism that ought not to have remained 20 years after apartheid. The symbolism of the various institutions needs to be unpacked. As indicated with my reference to Paul Kruger, I do not agree with simply destroying or removing. Whatever is done with statues of people who are considered offensive by virtue of their role in South African history needs to be part of a debate on legacies and heritages and informed by the alternative ways that may be used to address these.

Can one avoid talking about whiteness without talking about blackness? And if one applied the same sort of critique to blackness that is being applied to whiteness, can you avoid referring to the governmental stupidities happening in African countries?

I don’t see anything wrong with talking about blackness, but it is not for the same reason as why whiteness is relevant. The reason to talk about blackness may be to unpack the commonalities and differences, to probe notions of automatic African solidarity and why this is a myth. It would be to unpack notions like ubuntu and essentialist notions of cultures and customs.

How could one apply “the same sort of critique to blackness that is being applied to whiteness”? Black people have not inherited the structural power that whites enjoy. That is my basis for critiquing whiteness and it is inapplicable to blackness. The reference to “governmental stupidities happening in African countries” does not seem to have any bearing. It seems to me that you are interpreting the unpacking of whiteness as a reference to some inherent qualities attached to being a white. My argument is that it is nothing of the sort, but that it relates to social advantages that whites have inherited and that these need to be made visible. In achieving that, to some extent, the students have achieved a significant advance in our understanding what is inadequately acknowledged as invisible.

In your reading of whiteness/blackness you say that black people have not inherited the structural power that whites enjoy, but after two decades of affirmative action and patronage politics in South Africa and 50 years of independence in African countries isn’t there a system of black privilege, rooted in power structures, firmly in place? 

There is no doubt that many black people have acquired wealth by fair and foul means and that a small African bourgeoisie may have emerged as well as significant numbers who have become fairly comfortably off. But that means that inequality has become marginally “non-racial” but racial inequality remains significant. If one reads of those who are hungry with the rise of food prices and transport and other prices, these are mainly black people, and Africans in particular. The people who are victimised by police (arrested, harassed, killed), paradoxically after 22 years of democracy remain black people, and there are a range of other ways in which post-apartheid South Africa replicates patterns of oppression and inequality that were there under apartheid.

If one equates whiteness to privilege theory, isn’t it the case that it will take a very long time for whiteness in South Africa to be eradicated, since what one may call “white power” in the wider world for the sake of the argument is so dominant in the globalised world, and this will always favour whites here in South Africa – many would say through no fault of their own?

I am not acquainted with privilege theory, but it does not seem that I need to be for the question. What is called “white power”, or power accruing to whites by virtue of being whites in South Africa, is one of the factors that create inequality. There is, of course, also class inequality, which in South Africa tends to converge with racial inequality to some extent.

I don’t know how long it will take to remedy. It depends on how interventionist and in what way governments and political organisations will act in the future. I have no ready-made plan to address this in relation to unused resources or under-used resources or similar means of addressing the wealth gap.

I don’t think it is relevant whether whites are faultless. The idea that we should be preoccupied with the “guilt” of whites is precisely what we need to move away from, because we are dealing with systemic factors that can become or are already a powder keg. We need to try to shift it away from individual psychological attitudes or individual racism or “guilt” to what are systemic, institutionalised effects that are with us today. We need to identify that and see what can be done to set in motion processes that remedy the inequalities. Such changes do not need to be cataclysmic moments, but can be a series of structural reforms aimed at altering the life chances of black people in a way that is compatible with social and economic stability.

I am not addressing “white power” in the globalised world, built initially in some cases through slavery or extraction from former colonies. That is not the “whiteness” addressed here. That is part of a North-South debate or dialogue that sometimes makes incremental gains for the South.



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  • Re Languages -I agree since there are 11 languages don't give preference to certain languages re new proposed curriculum. Let students write it - they will quickly see that's not that easy - you need experience to write it.

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