"Standing up for injustices"? – Nine notes on #FeesMustFall

  • 2

“You will find me with other students on the front of the picket lines, standing up for injustices on our campus and beyond our borders.” – Shaeera Kalla (ex-Wits SRC head and protest leader)

Ian Glenn (source: www.cfms.uct.ac.za)


The two 2015 South African student-led movements #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall have led to considerable reaction, analysis and speculation. As the #FeesMustFall movement continues in 2016 and threatens to close the tertiary sector in the country for the year, what theoretical and analytical considerations throw light on to the movements and help predict their future? Here are nine notes towards a fuller account of these student movements.

  1. Is the medium the message?

Manuel Castells has argued, in his Networks of outrage and hope, for the emancipatory power of internet-driven social movements that lead to the occupation of public spaces and a new sense of collective purpose and identity. But a darker reading of the student protest and their social media habits is emerging.

While accounts from media scholars like Sean Jacobs, Herman Wasserman and Tanja Bosch have offered generally positive views of the rise of social media or the effects of Twitter in helping shape the movement, these accounts neglect the effects of mainstream broadcast and print media or of less public media forms such as WhatsApp groups.

The Cape Times played a major role in supporting the students, giving the protests ongoing front-page coverage, and offering material support to Chumani Maxwele, the student who started the protest by throwing faeces on the Rhodes statue on campus.

How did the #FeesMustFall movement spread so fast and furiously from the University of the Witwatersrand to other campuses across the country? From watching the protests and listening to comments from students at a variety of campuses, and indeed from examining the Twitter feeds, it seems that there was a large element of copycat (aspirational? emulative?) violence. Students, seeing peers on other campuses protesting, rioting, burning vehicles or facing police reactions, felt they should join in. In this, the student protests of 2015 were similar to the xenophobic violence of 2008, where research following the attacks found that some communities felt that they had to join in to express their uneasiness about foreigners.

We still do not have a full analysis of the role played by messages or phone calls in co-ordinating the violence of 2008 and may never have it, but the strong resemblances between the ways in which violent protests escalated in both cases suggest that if the pre-social media 2008 protests were strongly influenced by images of (to the viewers) righteous violence on television, these factors continued to influence conduct in 2015. It also seems clear that WhatsApp messages between leaders at different student campuses helped mobilise actions. In this case it seems that social media may exacerbate the tendency to turn to violence as a means of response.

On Twitter feeds as well, students across the country would be alerted to the strength of protest (which often equated its violence or the damage it caused) on other campuses, with references to videos or news broadcasts. The tone of these Twitter messages was often of envy or self-reproach – “Look, at Stellenbosch they are burning a vehicle! What are we doing?”

In conclusion. Before one can offer any definitive analysis of social media’s role or pronounce on the end of traditional media, we will need much more by way of insider accounts, an analysis of links between social media and traditional media, and revelations of the role of “hidden” communications on WhatsApp groups or elsewhere. We will also need to consider whether the prevalence of new forms of communication make it easier for violence to spread and more difficult for dialectic, reason, compromise, pacts, deals to emerge.

  1. The bourgeois revolution?

Several analyses of these movements have seen them as the reaction of the poorest of the poor. In neither case does this seem accurate. The #RhodesMustFall protagonists were at UCT, the university with one of the wealthiest student bodies in the country, and many of the student protestors were driven by what seem to be a black nationalist equivalent of earlier Afrikaner searches for a national ideology in reaction to a bullying European empire. The protagonists of such revolutions are the ministers, teachers and lawyers, not workers or peasants.

In the case of #FeesMustFall, the movement started at Wits, another university with students who in general were better off than those at the historically black universities. The role of social media also shows the predominance of comments from students with a good command of English and access to social media. While students at the poorer, historically black universities joined in, their complaints were in many ways more basic. At UCT, the law faculty, largely a postgraduate institution, was a major centre of protest. These students have already succeeded at an undergraduate level, suggesting that they are not struggling with access or with coping with the academic environment, but are engaging with what they see as the ideological basis of historically white universities.

Much of the reaction to the national tertiary loan scheme NSFAS also suggests that the students’ complaints were of a different order from those of a previous generation. Charles van Onselen analysed student protests a few decades ago and pointed to the importance of student grants for poor rural students in helping them maintain their families, the grants serving as a kind of salary to maintain more than the students for whom they were intended. In 2015 the complaints were far more about the “missing middle” – students from families too wealthy to qualify for NSFAS funding or complete university support, but too poor to pay for university study. These students, needing to take loans, probably should be classified as petit bourgeois or bourgeois, given that one analysis suggests that only 5% of the South African population can afford university education without loans.

What an analysis of the student protestors reveals is how many of them come from privileged, well-off families and backgrounds – children of university professors, vice-chancellors, government ministers and heads of parastatals were prominent figures. This suggests that the struggle should not be seen simply as about affordability but as about principles. In Inglehart’s terms (and I owe this point to Bob Mattes), these were in many ways post-materialist rebellions about values and principles rather than the complaints of desperately poor first-generation university students.

Several commentators have claimed that the work of Fanon and Biko was central to the thinking of black students. In various essays one finds references to Lenin, Guevara and Sankara, but at the high point of the #FeesMustFall movement, the breadth of participation suggested the complaint was generational, not purely or primarily ideological.

  1. Post-truth politics?

Part of the appeal of the #FeesMustFall movement lay in its very incoherence and lack of clarity beyond its initial demands. Were students simply asking for fees not to be raised in 2016? For that and an end to outsourcing of workers? To those and a major change of economic policy to provide free (universal?) education to all? For universities to become non-colonial institutions not perceived to be hostile to black students? This uncertainty about what was expected has continued to shape what is happening in 2016.

Nonetheless, an analysis of what the origins of the movement at Wits University is revealing: Both female student leaders, the outgoing and incoming Wits SRC presidents, have commented on how they started discussions on this after a Wits Council meeting that agreed to a 10,5% fee increase for 2016. Neither seems to have raised any strong objections at the meeting itself. More revealingly, they both describe the Wits Council in identical terms as “lily-white”.

This is palpably inaccurate and in a media environment where journalists were doing more than simply practising churnalism, these young people should have been sent to the Naughty Corner for telling a Big Fib. It is disappointing that the media outlets reporting the statements (Destiny and GroundUp) did not challenge them on this claim – or correct Kalla’s wish to “stand up for injustice”. Neither the Wits chancellor nor the vice-chancellor is white and their Council, going by the official Wits website at the time, had at least 12 African members and four others who would not have been classified white under the apartheid regime. (This in addition to about 14 white members.) The students are guilty of bad faith and blame-shifting. Instead of looking at the university management and its predicaments objectively, they simply reduce the decision to a racial indifference to the plight of black students. When this bad faith is the starting point, it is no surprise that later arguments are fraught with misrepresentation, wild claims and fallacies, with the ground prepared for a reduction to racial essentialism and the kind of black victimhood Achille Mbembe has analysed.

There are many other areas where the claims of the former SRC head Kalla do not withstand scrutiny. Kalla argues that South Africa spends 0,8% of GDP on higher education while the international average is "around 2,5% of GDP". This gets the figures wrong on both counts. When capital expenditure costs are factored in, South Africa spends closer to 1,1%, which is also the international average. Many other countries spend considerably less of their GDP on public higher education – the UK, for example, spends only 0,62%. It must be said, however, that the way the government includes NSFAS costs in the higher education budget raises tricky questions, and government communication on this matter has been abysmal. They could quite reasonably have pointed out that opening two new universities and spending R5 billion in one year on infrastructure scarcely qualifies as neglect of the sector.

And Kalla is typical of many students making claims that are simply untrue but stem from a general sense of grievance or injustice. It is not true, for example, that UCT gives preference in allotting residence places to white students or to international students, something which was raised repeatedly to justify the erection of the shack on UCT campus. When it comes to financial issues, the students are particularly incoherent and inaccurate. When asked where government should get the additional money that would be needed for free education, the students have a grab-bag of panaceas. The universities, they claim, without any evidence, have all sorts of slush funds that could easily be used to fund students. Or Nkandla money could be retrieved. They imagine some kind of treasure trove of money that could be recovered from multinationals or South African mining companies who have moved it abroad. The obvious retort to that is if that money could be recovered – and that is a very big if – surely it should go, in the first instance, to mineworkers and mining communities and to combating the environmental legacy of mining, or to dozens of other urgent social projects rather than to students.

There have been many reasoned responses to student claims and expectations around the issue of free education. On grounds of reasonable argument, the arguments for free education are simply a chimera. But until media start questioning the student claims and habit of reducing arguments to racial essentialism, reason is not going to get the hearing it deserves.

If the media habits of the protestors matter, they matter more in the McLuhanesque sense that the medium is the message. Social media in their brevity, rapidity, critical edge, tendency to one-upmanship and abuse, help shape students’ refusal of older forms of protest media (manifestos, petitions, reasoned debates) and their suspicion of any formal structures and accountability, shown by the ritual denunciation of any SRC trying to resolve issues with authorities. Social media and electronic communications allow for a politics of slogans and hashtags and political icons (like the shack erected on UCT campus) – and a rapid turn to violence. When WH Auden wrote of a university where “figures in the public eye/ Collapse next morning, ambushed by/ Some witty sneer”, he might have been imagining Twitter.

From a pessimistic point of view, then, the students are driven by strong feelings of injustice or a system rigged against them. Feeling this, they, like Donald Trump and his supporters, do not feel bound by conventional notions of truth or accuracy. They, like Trump, inhabit a post-truth world of media where the hit-and-run nature of social media dominated by what Polly Toynbee recently dubbed pejoratively an unrepresentative clickocracy makes it very difficult for conventional representative democratic institutions to survive.

I spoke to a senior UCT management figure early in 2016 about his view of what would happen in 2016 and he was optimistic. UCT, he pointed out, had concluded agreements about insourcing and zero fee increases and had removed Rhodes’s statue. Given the events since then, it seems reasonable to argue that management and students inhabit different conceptual and media universes. For the former, a signed agreement and resolutions meant the situation was resolved; for the students, that was yesterday’s news. There are new causes, other quarrels with which to show solidarity. Not all have been housed. The violence at the University of the Free State means that all university rugby matches must be disrupted (another case of emulative action). Some students will be excluded on academic grounds. Cadres excluded for violence must be reinstated. And so on.

  1. Race to the top?

Whatever the inter-racial composition of student movements in 2015, there were clear signs, as the year progressed, and into 2016, that the struggles were becoming increasingly racialised. Much of the #FeesMustFall movement is now stridently anti-white, perhaps linked to arguments in the EFF or to Andile Mngxitama about land expropriation or the impossibility of racial harmony. The self-justifying rhetoric of students during invasions of administration buildings at UCT and elsewhere was that white settlers stole the land. After the attempt to break into an examination venue at UCT where two protestors were arrested by security police, one of the students arrested, complaining about the force used against him, simultaneously abused the white security guard for being white and threatened to “get” him and his children. Adam Habib reported similar incidents from Wits. The original charge against Maxwele was that he had threatened a lecturer at UCT, using identical anti-settler rhetoric. In 2016 this rhetoric has escalated with the painting over of a war memorial at UCT with a “Fuck all Whites” slogan and the case of a black man (apparently not a UCT student) in the dining rooms wearing a “Kill all Whites” T-shirt.

One can no doubt find some roots of this rhetoric of victims forced into violence to make their point in Fanon in particular, but the larger question is why this group of young black students finds this rhetoric convincing 20 years into the new democracy. One should note that university students and young educated people are the prime constituency of the EFF. Whatever the theoretical orientation, it is paired with a suspicion of the Constitution (“an instrument of repression”) and of Mandela’s compromise.

Bob Mattes and Afrobarometer noted some years ago with concern that young black South Africans in high school were far less supportive of democratic ideals and norms than their peers in other African countries. Countries that have been under black rule, and particularly one-party rule or a long-term presidency for a long time are more likely to appreciate democracy. South Africans (and Namibians) who have had a long period of white apartheid rule may be more ready to accept the idea of a non-democratic state that moves more decisively in bringing about changes they see as overdue. Those high school students are now squarely the cohort in universities.

This is so close to the old apartheid-era bogeyman of the National Party that all the blacks would turn on all the whites that liberal administrators and commentators are generally uneasy about reporting or combating this. But as the late Stephen Watson argued about the excesses of language in protest poetry, words have consequences. We are far from the Freedom Charter’s reassurances that “the country belongs to all who live and work in it”; now we find ourselves in the rhetorical world that justifies Idi Amin’s chasing Asians out of Uganda or, indeed, of xenophobic violence in South Africa. Or, of course, of anti-immigrant rhetoric in Trump or some of the Brexit advocates.

  1. Ladies first?

One generally unremarked-on phenomenon in higher education has been how, since 1994, women, and particularly women of colour, have moved to being the largest demographic in university student numbers. In many South African universities, women constitute 70% of the law and medical classes and are increasingly outstripping men. There are 40% more women of colour than men of colour in tertiary education in South Africa. The two most prominent leaders of #FeesMustFall were women and there are signs that women organised, using WhatsApp groups, to ensure that women were given the primary places in media attention. Anybody watching television interviews would have been struck by how many of the interviewees were female.

While the phenomenon of the “feminisation of the academy” has been reported globally, how could it bear on the student protests in South Africa?

Several themes need further exploration. One of them is that the turning of male students to violence, after agreements had been signed, may have been one way of reasserting male supremacy and primacy in the struggle and of excluding (most if not all) women. Several female observers have talked with some alarm about the way in which a revolution which showed the power of women is now reasserting forms of patriarchy through violence. The UCT disruption of the official #RhodesMustFall exhibition by gender activists and the Rhodes University movement to report on alleged rapists on campus are other signs of the gender struggle raging behind the scenes on campuses.

Another may be that female students in the humanities and law seemed to be facing career uncertainties. One of the most revealing television interviews was with a black female master’s student in law from Stellenbosch complaining about how much money she owed for her master’s level studies. This case was revealing in many ways. First, the woman had a law degree already, which suggests five to six years of study before the master’s programme. She had, in other words, already cost taxpayers something of the order of R100 000 in subsidy support, whatever she had paid herself. Yet, with the law degree she was not seeking a professional career but studying further and complaining about the costs. In this case, the media uncritically accepted the implicit argument that free education should be for as long as one likes.

In other cases, female students at UCT about to graduate complained about inadequate funding for postgraduate studies. Yes, they said, it’s all very well having free undergraduate education, but what about further studies? To anybody who has worked in the sector this was another bad-faith argument – there is considerable funding, much of it preferential, for eligible postgraduate black students. Why did these young women want to carry on studying in any event? (And here one could argue at some length about the ways in which a government funding formula that favoured postgraduate studies has exacerbated the situation by leading universities into an increasing emphasis on further degrees.)

If these cases are symptomatic, it may be that a tightening job market and uncertainty about career prospects are making many women, in the social sciences, humanities and law particularly, angry and uncertain about the sacrifices they and their families have made, and their futures. Telling middle-class white parents who have a university background that a degree for their children is an education, not a qualification, was a difficult enough sell, but a liberal arts education was for many years something intended for women whose role in social and financial reproduction was subordinate to that of the (professional or managerial) husband and main breadwinner.

Now, with many of these women unlikely to find university-educated partners, they may have decided that being, in Bourdieu’s terms, in a subordinate position in social reproductive terms, was not what they had envisaged, and their uneasiness about their uncertain career prospects is fuelling some of their anxiety and anger. And for law students in particular it may be that the reality of having to pass board exams and get articles to qualify professionally are further daunting obstacles.

  1. Time to pay?

Many of the student protests reflected a sense of unmet expectations, of a new dispensation that was yet to deliver, of the students being there to collect on a debt due to them, as one much reproduced slogan read.

How realistic were and are these expectations? In one sense, they are as unrealistic as the jokes, just after Mandela’s election as president, that people were complaining that they had not yet had houses built for them. To rely on higher education to transform individual or family fortunes and prospects in the short or medium term may be realistic, but to expect it to transform society massively is to show ignorance about the long-term effects of social capital and the effects of social reproduction.

If higher education is by its essence competitive and meritocratic, and there are only so many places in medical or law or engineering schools, then the middle-class way is to have few children and invest heavily in their schooling. White South Africans accepting the new dispensation had no intention of giving up their struggle for their children’s places in the sun, any more than they intended to give up their properties – and no negotiators on their behalf would or could have negotiated that away. Whites, in other words, hoped for a transition that, like class shifts in countries like England or France, saw social advantages, whether in terms of land, social capital or wealth, endure for years, generations, or even centuries.

The ANC, on the other hand, had no interest in dwelling on the limitations of what they had achieved (“We have ensured access to education which, if we work hard, will improve the general lot of the population in a generation – or two”) and hoped that affirmative action and a widening of the tertiary education pool would do enough. The reported disillusionment with Mandela and the Constitution thus stems largely from a fairly general misreading by young people of what the Constitution meant – perhaps a result of the ANC’s over-optimistic presentation of their triumph, or, perhaps more pessimistically, from a Constitution that allowed different people to see what they wanted in it.

Arguments for free open higher education miss the crucial point, recently made by Cloete and others, that this will simply favour those children who have been well schooled in more expensive schools. Even in France, with universal access to good schooling, Bourdieu pointed out the lasting effects of social capital. And as Steven Friedman pointed out, when Brazil funded higher education extravagantly, it privileged the haves against the have-nots and increased social injustice.

It may be that student complaints about the Eurocentric curriculum, or an environment hostile to black students, show their uneasiness about the ways in which forms of social capital may hinder their progress or a wish that their forms of social capital would get more validation. But in a global community with universities concerned about international rankings and dedicated, as a central project, to producing what Baumann calls Liquid Moderns, their project is highly inimical to what most middle-class students – and parents – expect.

Nor is the naiveté of students about their expectations in a kind of cargo cult vision of higher education limited to the education sector only. One could make very similar arguments about the land question. Giving black people land is not enough to transform their fortunes or make the land fruitful. Without the concomitant capital, expertise, networks and technological skills such transfers are unlikely to produce prosperous farmers on sustainable farms and are likely to reduce the value of what the land could produce under current commercial agriculture.

This is not to argue that there are not black people who deserve land, or university places, either as students or teachers, more than white people, or that universities cannot be a motor for social change, but to point out that access to higher education, or land, is not enough by itself. Students are, surely, crying out about that lack, but are unable to articulate it in its complexity because the complexity would undercut the simplistic and often simply wrong complaints about institutions hostile to the black child or universities’ preference for whites. A law degree does not equal practising as a lawyer or succeeding in the bar exam. A humanities degree does not equal an immediate well-paid job in the civil service (unless one is Zuma’s daughter, of course).

  1. The effects on the universities

The first point that very few observers have made is that some South African universities have done very well in terms of international rankings. Cloete et al point out that of the 10 top BRICS universities, South Africa has (though this is probably now outdated) six and is punching well above its weight, in spite of the efforts put into transformation.

Nor have the universities been neglecting the question of transformation. The better-off universities had to try to raise an increasing amount of money from students and third-stream costs, given the shrinking portion of the budget coming from government subsidies, even while government was pressing for greater student numbers. Black students were getting preferential access to places in residences and affirmative action of various forms was being applied. Numbers of black students in professional programmes and postgraduate courses had increased dramatically.

And the fees, in international terms for good universities, have been very low. (A brief run through the costs of universities comparable to UCT in ranking will make this clear, while middle-class parents are regularly pleasantly surprised by how much lower than private school fees the university fees are.) The logic of greater than inflation fee increases at UCT and Wits was to move the price of education closer to the international market model and to encourage parents and students who could afford it, or see the value of investing in education, to pay more. With the fees raised, UCT argued that it could do far more for needy students. (After the general decision to freeze fees, UCT was still writing to parents pleading with them to pay more “if they could”.)

This move was a partial move towards a differentiated fee model, but it was never fully or satisfactorily articulated and defended by the universities. Understandably, struggling students, particularly those not qualifying for a financial support package, facing a double-digit fee increase were ready to oppose this bitterly.

In the beginning many, if not most, staff and the general public were sympathetic to #FeesMustFall. Many academics felt that it was a return to a day of student idealism and activism and watched proudly. Then depressing realities set in. For all the money the students managed to extract from government, there have been heavy costs – not only in the damage to university infrastructure (recently on the radio Adam Habib put the cost at a billion rand). The irony of effective fee differentiation ending means less money will be available for poor black students in 2016 or after. The costs of insourcing and the likelihood of increasing union militancy and student-worker alliances are likely to move resources from the academic project and teaching and learning.

What seems worse is that what may have been the illusion of a safe and productive multiracial space has been damaged. Racial battle lines were drawn and black academic staff in particular clearly felt much of what the students said resonated with and reflected their own uneasiness about the university space. In spite of the best efforts of many people, scars have been left.

As unrest continues and students carry out their threats of making universities unmanageable (until some utopian point or, more likely, a countrywide crackdown), more and more top academics and fee-paying students may vote with their feet and go elsewhere. A significant body of donors has already made their displeasure known to universities like UCT. Any lengthy further disruptions in universities are likely to see litigation from affected students and parents and a significant drop in the number of international students who contribute significantly to the income of universities like UCT.

Any further disruptions are also likely to increase the number of fee-paying students at private tertiary institutions in South Africa – one source suggests there are already nearly 80 of these giving access to degrees. If a leading international university offers distance education with some degree of local education and perhaps some form of visits to a main campus abroad, it is quite conceivable that the cash cows of local universities in faculties like commerce and the humanities may be badly affected.

The effects of #FeesMustFall are already a slide down the international rankings for UCT and the loss of fee income for leading South African universities. South African universities may be transformed – but worse off in international terms. While Danie Visser has tried to argue in The Conversation that this slide is the effect of government under-funding, this doesn’t really wash – how did UCT manage to improve its international ranking steadily during the whole decade of government under-funding until 2015?

The effect on students is that richer students pay less than they would have and that many hardworking students on bursaries will suffer. When Kalla talked about standing up for injustices, she may have spoken more truly than she realised.

  1. Take me away from the leader

One of the recent characteristics of South African universities has been the personalisation of authority in visible, omnipresent vice-chancellors – what one sardonic local expert calls the “cowboy VC”. A generation ago many students would have been hard-pressed to name or identify the vice-chancellor of Wits or UCT or UFS. Now these are often prominent media figures like Adam Habib or Jonathan Janssen or, in the case of UCT, the much photographed Max Price.

There may well have been positives to this individualisation of power, but during the protests these became negatives. Students and the media were able to focus on the individual rather than having to consider democratic bodies and processes and the needs of the institution as a whole. The institutions seemed to give up the bureaucratic staples of considering and, if necessary, blocking measures through committee decisions, due process and appeals.

The logical culmination of this was in a Cape Times headline “‘Arrest Max Price’” which presented students’ essentially frivolous complaint that UCT was trying to enforce some kind of order on campus as a serious news item. The reduction of UCT’s authority to a single individual’s decision or whim by the media showed the cost of Price’s own strategy. The decision to take disciplinary action against students and the court judgment against them is reduced simply to Price’s decision, however much he may argue that due process needs to be followed.

Habib’s case was more interesting in that he kept offering up his own reflections as a former student leader and activist. (It is surely significant that both Habib and Price are former student activists.) He started by complaining that the students were not negotiating seriously, then applauded students for extracting the major financial concession from government, then warned students not to do to Wits what he and his fellow activists had done to UDW in the 1980s. Now he is warning of the cost to Wits and the country of #FeesMustFall’s continuing protest and complaining that a minority of activists is blocking the wishes of the majority.

Less individual psychology and charismatic leadership and more collective responsibility and committee strength should surely be on the cards for South African universities going forward.

  1. Student union?

The achievement of #FeesMustFall was to present government with students as an interest group, a new constituency on a par with other unions. When the movement included a wide range of student bodies, the government reacted, as it has to other state unions, by buying its way out of immediate trouble. The problem is that the student union is not bound by the same constraints as other unions, so it isn’t clear what the government can do if unrest continues. Threats to discontinue NSFAS payments for anybody involved in protest may be one way; the other may be a more drastic intervention to clamp down on protest action countrywide.

The major problem for government here, as in other sectors, is that the EFF has rallied groups of students to its cause. Any attempt to find an ANCYL-allied SRC, for example, is likely to face considerable opposition within the institutions concerned. While it is difficult to know what goes on behind the scenes, some reports suggest that splinter groups and outsiders are driving much of the agenda on campuses. In particular, any SRC compromises or agreements are likely to face opposition from those adhering to the maxim (I think Robespierre’s) of “nothing to the left”. If the ANCYL does a deal, the EFF faction will complain. If the EFF faction does a deal, the Black Land! Black First! movement of Andile Mngxitama or a PAC faction is likely to oppose that. The government seems likely to discover, as the vice-chancellors surely by now have, the perils of negotiating with non-elected groups with no formal responsibility.


This essay started with a sense that the effects of social media in such power struggles and revolutionary moments are much more complex than a sunny triumph of a new form and that there is a dark side to Castells’s vision of the emancipatory possibilities of the internet and social media. The South African movements of 2015–2016 show some of the dangers and difficulties of negotiating in the new media world and of moving from representative student government to a post-truth social media environment where there are no formal gatekeepers. The essay also raised some of the larger issues that have generally been ignored: the gender and class composition of students; the behaviour of university leaders; the rhetoric of students; the clash of expectations about what the Constitution meant and promised; the extent to which the movement has been counter-productive and produced injustice here.

  • An earlier version of this article appeared in the Bulletin of the South African Library, June 2016.

Hierdie artikel is deel van LitNet Akademies (Opvoedkunde) se universiteitseminaar. Klik op die “University Seminar 2016”-banier hierbo om alle essays wat deel vorm van die gesprek, te lees.

This article forms part of the ongoing university seminar, with new essays continually being added. Please click on the “University Seminar 2016” banner above to follow the ongoing conversation and to read more essays on education, access, transformation, language and the Constitution.

  • 2


  • Gustaf Claassens

    A much needed essay and very good read. Pact with facts with very good arguments and comparisons, this is the kind of info which needs to be distributed to all concern in an effort to get a much more balanced discussion.
    This said, I always find it a bit mind boggling that "Afrikaans" always seems to creep into discussions like these, mostly in a negative way which was perhaps not the intention, but nevertheless. Under the heading "The bourgeois revolution?" Glenn says :" ... and many of the student protestors were driven by what seem to be a black nationalist equivalent of earlier Afrikaner searches for a national ideology in reaction to a bullying European empire."
    This view is only partly true and could be a very dangerous thing, especially when being generalized ... we've seen already how language is being used as just another "weapon" (actually an excuse) at many campuses. Fact of the matter is that the Afrikaner was "fighting" for Afrikaans and not necessarily against "English" or other similar things. Of course mistakes were made in the search for specific "rights" with which I don't disagree. But there's a bit of a difference between working towards an "identity" vis a vie a sort of twisted "ideology" of some sort and also methods used to achieve one's goals.
    The Afrikaner in general did not burn down schools and infrastructure, did not destroy artwork and libraries and another big difference: the Afrikaner was (and still is) always prepared to work for what they believe in and what they want to achieve. Yes, like any other nation the Afrikaner can be accused for a number of "wrongs" but they never ever had/have a "demand-everything-for-free" attitude. I'm sure, that when thinking about it, Glenn would probably agree to some extend ... (This just as an anecdote as Glenn's contribution towards a complicated subject is just magnificent!)

  • Ian: very well-researched, thoughtful piece - thanks! I also feel that the agonising over their struggle credentials on behalf of a number of folk at UCT (and elsewhere) has led to delays and under-reaction in dealing with students who are manifestly obviously breaking the law - which has of course resulted in them being emboldened to go on to do worse.

    I don't see any good ending to all of this. With luck, things will peter out as they did last year and we'll get back to normal fairly soon. If not ... who knows? I certainly don't.

  • Reageer

    Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.