Guest Opinion: Student Uprising’s in South Africa have exposed the cracks of our “freedom” 

By Simamkele Dlakavu

After participating in transformation initiatives at Wits University, and during my visits to the #RhodesMustFall movement at Azania House at the University of Cape Town and the Black Student Movement at the institution currently known as Rhodes University, I saw that these students understood that their struggle also lie beyond the university space. They are aware that they are a part of a wider superstructure and universities reflect the battle of different power dynamics. As one student at institution currently known as Rhodes University affirmed “we cannot talk about the curriculum transformation without talking about the system….let’s change the system”.

The student movements that we have seen in our country such as #RhodesMustFall are a direct challenged to the political and economic status quo. They point to the fallacy of the ‘new’ South Africa that we are celebrating today, like every Freedom Day. These students have protested, occupied buildings and debated to draw attention to the fact that South Africa today is not so different from the South Africa of 1994, especially at their institutions of higher learning.

Today our country will be bursting with celebrations, these jubilations will of course commemorate the day where black South Africans achieved their political emancipation, where for the first time they had a say in who governs. A day when the majority finally ruled, and voted Nelson Mandela as the first black president of South Africa.  That day was filled with tears of joy, pride and hope, a hope for a new South Africa. As South Africans we wanted our freedom so badly, after hundreds of years of oppression under slavery, colonialism and apartheid. For many, April 27 1994 really seemed like a miracle moment. Therefore, accepting that this miracle does not exist and the narrative of the rainbow nation is a direct impediment to real transformation, has been hard to admit.  Especially for those political and economic elite that are reproducing the status quo. A status quo where being black continues to be a liability in South Africa.

In her piece reflecting on our democracy, Sisonke Msimang reminds us how desperately we wanted to believe in this miracle moment. She writes that “one of the first mistakes South Africans made in those heady transitional years was to believe our own hype. We fell into the language of the ‘new’ South Africa”. In our eagerness she says, “we poured all ours [efforts] into new things, rather than into undoing the old ones”. Student uprisings in our country are highlighting the ‘old’ university culture and institutional racism in our formerly white institutions of higher learning has not transformed to reflect the ‘new’ South Africa. These student movements are pointing to the fact that their lecturers remain lily white, the course content mostly reflects a history and context that is not their own and the symbols around their campuses are mostly of white racist, colonialist and imperialist men who directly affected the oppression of their ancestors.

After participating in transformation initiatives at Wits University, and during my visits to the #RhodesMustFall movement at Azania House at the University of Cape Town and the Black Student Movement at the institution currently known as Rhodes University, I saw that these students understood that their struggle also lie beyond the university space. They are aware that they are a part of a wider superstructure and universities reflect the battle of different power dynamics. As one student at institution currently known as Rhodes University affirmed “we cannot talk about the curriculum transformation without talking about the system….let’s change the system”.

Challenging the political status quo:

Although all of these movements are non-partisan and no single political party dominates or drives them. These students understand that they are political agents. At Azania House at UCT before the statue had fallen, these students were deliberating on the issue of the national question, the state and how to respond to it. They were questioning the ANC’s role in maintaining the status quo.

While the context we are living in today is slightly different, Nelson Mandela diagnosed the South African problem well in his Revonia Trail speech in 1964 . He said “the lack of human dignity experienced by Africans is the direct result of the policy of white supremacy. White supremacy implies black inferiority”. Instead of challenging white supremacy these students feel that the current ANC government is “hell bent on massaging capitalism and white supremacy”, as expressed by a Rhodes student.

A UCT student affirmed her sentiments when he said that “we are going to be in direct conflict with the ANC”. He further went on to say “that’s why we are here, they have allowed this situation to occur”. At the launch of Chris Hani’s pocket book biography at COSATU House in Johannesburg last week, Lindiwe Sisulu expressed that she had felt the antagonism of these students towards the ANC. While visiting UCT before the Rhodes statue had fallen, she said that she arrived to a “very hostile” environment and that “they [the students] were accusing the ANC of selling out”.

Sisulu failed to understand what students mean when they declare that one “cannot have a critique of the system, without critiquing the state”. The system which they are referring to are the structures of oppression that interconnected in what bell hooks has labelled as “imperialist capitalist white supremacist patriarchy”,  a system that the ANC has failed to even attempt to dismantle.

Challenging the economic status quo:

In their attempts to “decolonialise the academy”, these students are also directly challenging our lily white economy. In which continues to perpetuate our racialised and gendered inequality that allows two white men in South Africa to “own the same wealth as the bottom half of the population” as the recent Oxfam report indicates. A student at Rhodes passionately said at one of our discussions, that in our country “the way transformation is dealt with still does not disrupt whiteness…. social justice is reduced to charity”. Indeed, corporate South Africa is very quick to indicate all the “good” they contribute towards the country, mentioning their Corporate Social Responsibility Initiatives and the “jobs” they create. While failing to acknowledge the role they played under apartheid as well as their financial benefit from that oppressive system, in which this ‘new’ country has not demanded retributions for.

Furthermore, their PR campaigns fail to mention their corruption, price fixing and looting that costs our economy billions as well as the nepotism and institutional racism that occurs in the private sector under the mask of “merit” and “excellence”.  These students are challenging the commodification of education which has facilitated the financial exclusion of black students; they are demanding the end to the outsourcing of workers who are gardeners, cleaners and security guards at these institutions. They are confronting the fact that the curriculum that is taught to commerce students that’s largely preparing them for corporate South Africa is depoliticised, ahistorical and asocial.  While giving testimony of her own experience, a Rhodes said “I’ve never learned about apartheid as an economic oppressive system outside of colour….. these things are not available to us because we are not allowed to[understand them]”.

A quest for true freedom

As Rhodes academic Nomalanga Mkhize stated, what is important now is “how to tackle the system at large, in a more cohesive way because the system reproduces itself”.  These students understood that the task ahead isn’t going to be easy, as UCT student jokingly expressed “to critique the ANC on the other side and white capital on the other…. we need to think, how are we going to survive [laughs]”.

bell hooks reminds us, education can be the practice of freedom and now university students in South Africa are demanding their institutions end being tools of oppression but rather be tools for  liberation. Thomas Sankara placed a call to Africans to “dare to invent the future”.  These students are responding to that call and are presenting an alternative. So that in the years to come, we can celebrate this day and truly call ourselves “free”.

24 Comments
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