The fire next time? Generations, established/outsider groups and South African universities in crisis.

The fire next time? Generations, established/outsider groups and South African universities in crisis.

Part 5, Comparing student protests, 1920s/50s, and 2015/2016

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘The fire next time; Part 5, Comparing student protests′ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.


 1. Some comparisons

1.1 Having discussed in Part 4 in some detail the recent student protests in 2015 and 2016, and those of 1920 and 1946 at Lovedale and 1955-6 at Fort Hare, Part 5 of this ‘Thinking with Elias’ essay draws some comparisons. Its contents are ‘unfinished business’, for almost inevitably the crisis in South African universities is likely to continue in one form or another. When events are emergent, thinking about them also needs to be in process. With this note of caution, there are a number of useful comparisons that can be made as part of thinking out some points of similarity and difference.

1.2 The most obvious point of comparison, the one that leaps immediately to mind, is no less important for being obvious. The student protests of the 1920s to the 1950s occurred in the context of radical movements for change on the part of the majority population against a undemocratic sectarian white government, while those of 2015 and 2016 have occurred in the context of a democratically elected government representing the majority population (and many others as well). Increasingly from the 1920s on, there were periods in which major strikes and other widespread protest activity occurred, and in response there were mass arrests and a range of other reprisals, with the broad context one of increasingly discriminatory legislation and the increasing use of force by the state against dissenting groups. In the period of the events of 2015 and 2016, the student protests occurred in a context in which they were largely autonomous rather than being part of a wider movement directed against government and regarding rights issues across the board.

1.3 In the 1920s to ’50s, the protest were directly concerned with government and the state apparatus, with elite colleges and elite schools seen as part of this apparatus. The state was seen as an imposed body that lacked legitimacy because representing only the sectional interests of a small white minority. This was widely acknowledged and multiply repeated by largely white people writing letters and producing document about these events and also in the newspaper cuttings that appear in the archive collections too, including by people who thought the black population ought not to feel that way. Relatedly, the earlier protests were directly connected with the wider protests, they occurred in their wake and also through the activities of those referred to in Lovedale and Fort Hare documents as members of caucuses. Potlako Leballo is the archetype caucus member here, with an earlier and later long-term political track-record as well as his activities at Lovedale.

1.4 In the earlier period up to the 1950s, while there were factors operating specifically at local level, this was in the context of wider political concerns and the whole majority population, rather than focused on the situation of an elite group. These were matters of equality, freedom and justice. Being in the higher education context brought to the surface, almost against the intentions of the teachers and other institutional authority figures, ideas about equal worth and respectful treatment from students who took the freedom of thought that was supposedly valued deeply seriously. While fees and food were mentioned during the protests, the multiply expressed refrain concerned equality and justice matters.

1.5 By comparison, the student protests of 2015 and 2016 seem more self-contained and concerned with a circumscribed set of issues, rather than occurring in association with majoritarian political concerns and values and political activities. For instance, while earlier 1990s transition-period political pledges about free education have been mentioned, the emphasis has been on freezing or abolishing university fees and there has been no widespread call among the protesters, for instance, for free pre-school or grades 1 to 9 education. The gap between the richest sections of South African society and the poorest has grown and there are major problems with the economy, neither of which have been linked with the fees issue in any significant analytical way. There has been no articulation of an analysis of the generally-accepted political malaise of South Africa around corruption, violence and related issues among the protesters, although such matters are being widely debated elsewhere.

1.6 Regarding the 1920s to ’50s protests, the slow burn issues and the trigger-points for the riots and associated activities were concerned with the treatment of people, with treating people respectfully and equally, and with opposing unjust authority. The archive documents are not concerned with the content of education while there is much about the manner of its delivery and the perceived authority or lack of it of those who provided the teaching. While at an immediate level these issues arose in the relationship between students and teachers and other institutional staff, they were also expressed in general terms about entire populations. Using Elias’s idea of the I/We balance, these earlier protest were primarily a matter of We, the wider collectivity of the black population, not just the protesting students although including them.

1.7 Regarding the 2015 and 2016 protests, the I/We balance comes across as significantly more about ’I’, about members of the within-group themselves, although for some groups within the wider student body there have been efforts to expand this. But in spite of this, the concerns of now seem more narrow and even when ignoring the matter of fees they are still largely about within-university matters like the curriculum, although there are aspects of the latter which do raise some wider issues and will be discussed below. There is however little sense that, for instance, the excesses and outrages of the government, widespread corruption including at the highest levels, and the breakdown of the rule of law through ministerial infringements, are a concern. Even protest statements about closing the universities to topple the government have been made in very general sloganising terms, with little indication of why or what would come after. The recent protests are about authority, but authority at a local, university, level and diminishing or controlling it, with wrecking and burning university buildings and reprisals against fellow students indicative.

1.8 Succinctly, the universities are the focus for the recent student protests, and the government and majoritarian rights issues are not. However, there are of course aspects that stretch in that direction. In this connection, the calls for Africanisation and ‘the truly African university‘ are notable, and there are echoes here of some aspects of the earlier protests, particularly the 1955-6 events at Ford Hare.  Regarding the recent protests, these ideas have had significant appeal, not only in the wider student body but within the academic community more widely, regarding notions of justice and appropriateness.

1.9 Debates about what this means in more specific terms have surfaced largely around issues concerning black empowerment appointments and quotas, with changing the curriculum in at least some subject-areas being seen as less divisive and something more people can sign up to. But there are divisive issues here too. The African Renaissance ideas of former President Mbeki led to the failure of the government under his leadership to promote use ‘western‘ medicine medical treatments for HIV and AIDS, with many deaths and new infections as a result. Debates around this have re-surfaced regarding whether there is an African physics, mathematics, molecular biology and so on that would be different in kind from ideas and practices prevailing elsewhere in the world and whether this is a good or a bad thing.

1.10 There are also interesting comparisons concerning the extent to which the two sets of protests are about generations, or about established/outsider groups. The protests of the 1920s to ’50s seem more a matter of established and outsider conflicts than generational issues, for these earlier student protests were derivative of, a product of, something wider concerned with challenging the state and not only its monopolisation of force, but its accumulation and redistribution aspects, and also its moral authority. The student protests of 2015 and 2016 have elements of both. However, there are more generational aspects to the issues involved, the manner of their expression, and the aims and goals that have been articulated. As discussed in the previous blog in this series, there are also many resonances here with Elias’s analysis of the West German 1960s context of protests, although there are crucial differences and in particular that the protests in South Africa have not involved terrorism.

1.11 This mention of the 1960s raises the existence of student protests in South Africa in the in-between period between the 1950s and the 2010s. All the examples of student protests discussed or mentioned in the earlier and later periods occurred at elite institutions. This is very different from the schools protests now remembered because of the terrible events that happened at Sharpeville in 1960 and Soweto in 1976. Over this period of the struggle through to the 1980s, it was marching and striking school learners who acted as a barometer of wider protests and changes occurring.

1.12 Thinking about these important matters will continue. The future of South Africa’s universities continues to unfold; and while there may well be more protests, these are likely to take somewhat different shape, and a watchful eye needs to be kept on this.


Last updated: 21 December 2017