Nelson Mandela Foundation

Two years since the end of the majority of student protests in South Africa, a number of books, articles and documentaries have taken the stage. Broad meta-narratives are firmly gaining traction and, arguably, the space for contestation has divided into a binary. This moment is not dissimilar to other movements and, in an increasingly polarised world, how we tell stories of movements can be as important as the movement itself.

Related to the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s dialogue and memory work and in collaboration with Jacana Media and the Hanns Seidel Foundation, on Saturday, 22 June the Nelson Mandela Foundation hosted a public dialogue titled “Narratives of Change: Reflecting on movements in South Africa”. 

The dialogue took the form of a conversation between Professor Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand and author of Rebels and Rage: Reflecting on #FeesMustFall; Wandile Ngcaweni, Junior Researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Research, and Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity 2019 - 2020 fellow, Lovelyn Nwadeyi. Ngcaweni and Nwadeyi are respectively co-editor of and contributor to the book We Are No Longer at Ease: The Struggle for #FeesMustFall. The conversation was facilitated by seasoned journalist Nelson Mandela Foundation board member, Nikiwe Bikitsha.

The intergenerational conversation gave vivid insights into the ways in which modern movements navigate conflicting internal agendas, approach institutions of power and weaponise (and are weaponised by) the media. It touched on how the #FeesMustFall movement was both similar and dissimilar to the anti-Apartheid movement.  

Nwadeyi, in her opening statement, reflected on the ideological foundations of the #FeesMustFall movement which drew on the intersectional decolonisation agenda of Rhodes Must Fall at the University of Cape Town. In her view, both movements metabolised the agency of young people to meaningfully contribute to the state of post-Apartheid South Africa. Both movements placed on the national agenda the ways in which tertiary education has been commodified which arguably excludes poor people from using education as a tool to self-actualise and develop a sense of self-determination.

Both Habib and Ngcaweni noted that issues of fees, debt and financial exclusion are not new issues globally. Ngcaweni further contextualised cases describing how students at the Vaal and Durban universities of technology have historically protested over high costs. However, it was agreed by the whole panel that the social currency of historically white universities, the universities of Cape Town, the Witwatersrand and Stellenbosch University, were given enough media attention to create support from the country around that issue of financial exclusion and the many other structurally-related causes the protests highlighted.

Ngcaweni went on to describe that this attention is predicated on spectacle and arguably fuelled by a number of factors, including a protesting mass in the streets of urban centres, by spectacle and constant articulations of the suffering of black and working poor South Africans. However the feedback loop between these movements and the media, explained Nwadeyi, excluded the articulation of sophisticated models and concepts developed by students that seek to resolve the issue of exclusionary and exorbitant university fees and instead focused on "pain".

However, as Habib argued, universities in South Africa were themselves also victims of an annual decrease in government subsidies. This necessitated the yearly escalation in student fees. This, Habib expressed, places universities in an unenviable position, with the interests of their students on the one hand and their diminishing source of income on the other. On top of this, Habib articulated, was the issue of insourcing the support staff of universities which added a further financial burden.

On the point of ideology, all the panelists agreed that students are neither a homogenous group nor inherently progressive. Ideologically, the panelists were in harmony that the commodification of tertiary education was an injustice that could not be sustained if the country is to resolve its national trauma of social and economic disenfranchisement.

The conversation’s insights articulated a number of continuing issues in post-Apartheid South Africa, including exclusion and an ever-growing inequality.