The entire country has been watching the drama of student protests over the past few months. Such widespread scenes of protest have not been seen in South Africa since the 1976 Soweto uprising. Historically white universities and their management are particularly unfamiliar with the phenomenon of ongoing student unrest and violence. The damage to property is already estimated at almost R1000m.
What are the causes of these phenomena? And what drives the new youth movement?
Over the past few years a new point of view has emerged, especially among black youth - one of widespread dissatisfaction with their daily lived experience 22 years after the “new South Africa” came into being. They speak of their “lived reality” in a South Africa that continues to culturally and economically exclude them. And it is for them especially apparent when at university, where they study with white students who are economically much better off than they are. They hold the authorities (both the universities and the state) responsible for this exclusion, and criticise the entire post-1994 order. They talk of “post-apartheid apartheid”.
It is interesting to note that the leadership of the movement comes from middle class and sometimes privileged homes. This should not be surprising, since the phenomenon of “rising expectations” - my living conditions have improved, but now I want more - is especially prevalent among the middle class. These young people see the South African reality through the eyes of their parents during apartheid. And their experience is that nothing has changed.
In their experience, South Africa is still dominated by whiteness and white privilege. The (black) government is in a position of authority, but not in control. Even the people in blue (police) act against them so as not to disturb the “white” order.
From this flows a strong anti-white sentiment. You can almost speak of a “F... white” culture, as seen in graffiti and read on T-shirts. And this is not regarded as racism, but at best as (justified) bias.
The philosophical roots of this movement come from various sources. Steve Biko's Black Consciousness has played a role. But the French doctor-journalist-philosopher Frantz Fanon has played a more prominent role. The anti-white and decolonisation rhetoric come from his work in the late 50s of the previous century when Algeria gained independence from France. “Decolonisation” is often heard in the ranks of the new youth movement, and it demands that everything in society (and universities) that is (still) colonial (read: white and Western), must disappear. This include symbols, statues, books and curriculum.
The new black youth movement want an opportunity to speak about their lived reality and the prejudice they face - without the interference and presence of white people. These are referred to as “safe spaces”, and may only be entered by those who have the same racial experience. That is why rectors are told to “sit when you talk to us” and white students are denied the opportunity to engage in debate.
Another prominent topic is that of “occupation”. The disadvantaged black youth must claim and occupy the white spaces of university campuses and senate meetings (Wits). Last Friday, one of the leaders of #FeesMustFall at Wits, Mcebo Dlamini stated that they no longer recognised Adam Habib as Vice-Chancellor and Dlamini declared himself interim Vice-Chancellor. Something similar happened previously at the Vaal Triangle Campus of the NWU.
Then there is the almost religious fervour with which the new youth movement expects (no, demands) that all other students and lecturers stop studying and working in order to support the movement in its struggle for a better society. This is seen in the closure of campuses by students (UCT) and the intimidation of the majority of students and staff who dare to continue with their studies and work.
Fanon is also used to justify the use of violence. Violence is an essential element of protest, used to inject fear into the status quo. Of course the students justify their violence by saying that the authorities and police pushed them to it, but violence in principle is already part of the philosophy. As we have seen, fire is also prominently used during the violent protests.
On the back of these philosophical viewpoints, the EFF has started to exploit the situation on several campuses (especially where they control the student representative councils). Serious differences between different student organisations such as SASCO and the ANCYL further contribute towards the instability. But, unlike some politicians, I do not believe a sinister “third force” is involved in the new youth movement.
It’s not difficult to criticise the new youth movement. In a constitutional democracy, the use of violence is completely unacceptable. Their racial sentiments are superseding the Constitution’s (and the ANC) non-racialism, which could have dangerous and polarising consequences. The youth movement further entirely excludes (at least at this stage) discussion, debate and compromise. They demand the complete surrender and the upset of the present order. They are completely against “rainbowism”.
It is important that the broad spectrum of South Africa’s leadership understand this phenomenon, otherwise it will not be properly confronted or correctly managed. Fees and free higher education are only the ears of the hippopotamus. The ultimate goal is to overthrow the new South Africa, non-racialism and the Constitution. Therefore, the actual demands can never be met - the goalposts will constantly be moved. In the medium term, university management and boards must realise this if they want to save not only the academic year, but also the existence of our universities. And the government will have to provide stronger leadership - this is about more than fees.
By Dr Theuns Eloff, Executive Director, FW de Klerk Foundation