What #FeesMustFall teaches us about racism

By Pakama Ngceni

Pakama Ngceni shares her thoughts on what the Fees Must Fall protests teaches us about racism, the resistance to the logic of the rainbow nation and how white supremacy was there every step of the way, not needing the presence of white bodies. 


If we are honest and not clouded by fantasies about the progress in the relationships between people of different races we might learn a few things about how persistent racism is and its impact on a society that has publicly resisted oppressive regimes for centuries.

We might look at the Fees Must Fall Movement as free education on white power in South Africa. What has been buried under the glamourous narrative of the rainbow nation where the youth apparently have a window to escape poverty through higher education? What are the values dished out by an education structure that promotes individual acts of kindness as a strategy to poverty alleviation? Student societies with their charity drives, their community outreach, and even the outlook on who becomes research subjects?

The narrative that poverty can be ascribed to personal failings and individual good deeds will lead to liberation, one graduate at a time, is to erase the historical context of white accumulation through violence.

Free Education: What we learnt about white power

Young people rallying around the cry #FeesMustFall, together with university workers decrying outsourcing, were able shut down the normal day to day of our society’s functioning by their thousands recently. They caused enough of a nuisance that in parliament those who couldn’t be arrested were tear gassed. At the ANC (African National Congress) Headquarters, pepper spray was the weapon of choice to disperse peaceful students and those who stood in solidarity. Across campuses, people were shot at with rubber bullets, choked, and generally pushed around. When that didn’t quite calm down the situation, the ruling party nominated to take it over through the provision of free busses to the Union Buildings, free Party t-shirts at the Union Building , free water and not-so-subtle propaganda. President Jacob Zuma announced 0% fee increase for the year 2016. Alas, no free education and no real commitments on outsourced labour.

What the student and worker alliance have started is a resistance to the logic of the “Rainbow Nation”. They have correctly identified structural failings within the institutions of higher learning starting with the exorbitant fees and legal exploitation of labour. They have shown us how these are anti-black practices affecting this ‘Born Free’ generation. They have shown us how this keeps the already privileged in that position. They teach us about the fallacy of hard work and determination as a solution to structural poverty. Who works harder than one who tends university gardens for decades and remains casual labour? Who is more determined than a student who will go to class hungry? Perhaps most importantly, the university shutdowns demonstrated how deeply the requirement to “not see colour” as a rule to all approaches, facilitates how white power runs.

Who called the Police?

There is always an eagerness from white liberal media and activists to supervise how black youth and workers behave when protesting. The usual reproaches: Is the protest action effective enough? Does it alienate?  Is it peaceful?  A common theme around protest action continues to be white policing. As if we don’t have to deal with a lot policing of black bodies from the state and from those who claim to have “given us our freedom from the chains of Apartheid” about when, what and where it is appropriate to protest. So rugby games are off-limits. Protest action around suburbia? Not okay. Occupying Luthuli House? Undisciplined and counter-productive.

Watching the narrative of frustrated, education-thirsty, diligent white students who have been violated by the protest of the violence-thirsty blacks is nauseating!

Claims about the inconvenience and rudeness of protesters have extended into many spaces. Shutting down freeways and bridges has been deemed unacceptable. Protests during exam time on campuses, and any other places where white lives are inconvenienced are deemed not only inappropriate but ineffective since the “strategies” are alienating “allies”. The strategy to “blame the victim” disguised as an issue of correcting the tone and tactics is not just insensitive to organisers working on the ground but it is also what racism looks like. The message is clear: wait for the right moment, for the right location, for the right audience, for the right tactic, for the right city, for the time when protest action doesn’t make white South Africa too uncomfortable or force white progressives to look in the mirror and then you will succeed in gaining true liberation.

White Supremacy was there every step of the way, no need for white faces

Apparently being ruled by a supposedly black government is supposed to erase the impact of racism. Black rule means that where there is little or no physical proximity to whiteness there is little or no institutional racism. This logic ignores that white supremacy is so insidious that by virtue of simply being trained in these institutions, you can carry out racist policies and procedures.

Racism in this country determines who has a voice, and who is otherwise constructed as the ‘angry black rabble’. There is always the perception that protest led by only black activists are essentially violent, and this perception dehumanises them, makes violence against them justified and frees the public facing up to their very real problems. The black protester fashioned as ‘animal’ perpetuates racist representations of black people. For instance, historically black institutions such as the University of the Western Cape (UWC), Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) and others have been protesting on these same issues for years before the previously whites only institutions ever started.

Yet the narrative continues to make this disappear – unless of course spectacular violence marks their bodies. It seems that they didn’t make the cut for the perfect victim. They do not elicit sympathy. Instead, people on social networks are trending with memes depicting black youth from these historically black institutions as “unharmable”. They are depicted as if tear gas rolls off their faces and rubber bullets do not pierce their skin – like they are not human.

The media labelled them as rioting long before the ‘looting’ started. It seemed middle class institutions were protesting while those at the likes of UWC were ‘student riots’. The act of breaking windows, starting a fire, vandalising a cafeteria for food solicited more outrage from some than the millions of workers who have lost homes, pensions and all other life security benefits all humans who sell their labour are told is a reality.

The looting and rioting are a part of narrative that diverts us from the fundamental problem of structural violence, where a black student who is financially excluded or somehow manages to raise funds but cannot afford sanitary pads or has to sleep on campus because they do not have transport money to go home. Their experiences are what structural violence is, its impact, and the worst of which is the shame of poverty. The ‘senseless violence by senseless barbarians’ are the same people who go to class and work hungry, who have to hide in common rooms to sleep when they cannot do otherwise, who have to suffer the humiliation of being found out and criminalised. This reinforces that the destruction of private property is violence but the suffering of blacks is not.

Picture says a thousand racist words?

For white activists and those who have internalised racism, there has been the struggle to acknowledge that police violence is indeed anti-black racism. And when they have, the whole debacle has prioritised their perspectives on the matter. Take the viral picture of white UCT students and academics forming a protective shield around black protestors. Being a human shield on the “frontlines” without too much fear of police violence and the privilege of, at first value, being recognised to be rationally and knowingly protesting doesn’t fix systemic issues.

Our mistake of thinking a white face in a protest makes the structural racism problem vanish is unsafe at best and at worst the reason a gazillion protests each year end with solutions that barely make the grade for even modest reform.  What is it about white bodies that specific acts of goodness by them are to be read as saviours we dare not refuse? As if high fees are irrelevant to them. In what ensures, what gets lost is that our anger with the police, the ruling party, white society who continue to be privileged is legitimate. This is nothing new and is the personification of white claims and imagined aggravations.

The story of white activism in South Africa is one of “progressives” who use the black community for their intellectual and protest street credibility. A street cred gained at the expense of maintaining a system of racial inequality and violence. The history of the liberation movement is riddled with examples where white activists who questioned the appropriateness and utility of tactics. It is no accident that the policy of affirmative action, has benefitted more white women than any other group. It is also no accident that a white activist, Joe Slovo, is hailed to be the architect of the sunset clause which has ensured that private property accumulated violently, will remain in the hands of whites in our democracy. That the fees will not go up next year is a cherry on top for white students.

This is a necessary formality for the white narrative to reassert itself over any and all political issues. This is a basis for ignoring our demands and maintaining anti-black practises. It means black people cannot cry because our tears, our pain, our bodies do not exist in the way that white tears do in society. We cannot even use our pain as a source of power without white faces to legitimise us, supervise that we don’t end up on reverse racism alley and all else that limits our voices being heard. The narrative has been about how we, black people, should be ever grateful for the appearance of more than a few white bodies in this protest. This feeds the white imaginary about a people who have transcended race differences and continue to reconcile their way out of structural poverty. It soothes whiteness and shows us the deeper issues with the discourse of white allies that focuses on speaking through their privilege rather than doing the work of transforming society fundamentally.

Getting schooled

Fees have not fallen but the student protests are schooling themselves and us. At the University of Witwatersrand, student leaders told students to go back to school last week, because 0% fee increase has been won. To continue the protest action implied one was anti-revolutionary and chaotic like the white fairy tale says. This move, which essentially abandoned the call to end outsourcing, was met with resistance from those who understood that it is black workers who are exploited through it, that their dignity and the futures of their children cannot be postponed for exams. This Sunday, the Wits University Council agreed to insourcing workers and to paying the studies for the children of all workers who qualify for university.

The Fees Must Fall Movement teaches all of us that racism thrives because whites act it out and benefit from it. Racism thrives because there are bodies that matter, and those who don’t. Racism thrives because institutions support it and black people have internalised it and project it but have little to no institutional power associated with it. Literally every manifestation of stereotypes used to control black dissent has been historically proliferated and capitalised on by whites. This has included forming a white protest narrative as diametrically opposed to black-led protest. To deny this specific impact is to deny our lived experiences and erase our efforts as black protesters. It is to deny that black students and workers still face social, economic, and institutional punishments for not being white. It is to deny us the right to name our oppression racist and rally around our blackness to end it. Reflecting on white allies is not some abstract intellectual exercise, it teaches us the impact of white activists in protest situations. An impact that is historical, present and as clear as a white cat standing on a burnt field.


Pakama Ngceni is a black feminist writer and activist with SAYF and Nzinga. Nzinga will host a discussion on the Fees Must Fall Movement on Sunday 29 November 2015 at Niki’s Oasis in Newtown.

  1. Perhaps the writer of this article is the real racist. Clearly white people are not your enemy yet
    you try to make it so, your psychology is tainted with a personal hatred and you will never
    see the truth which lies in front of you as you are blinded by the hatred of a certain race. There
    is no use in trying to reason or argue with an individual such as yourself as the wool is pulled so
    far over your eyes that you will chock to death before changing your mindset to the truth. Blaming
    someone who has no current connection to your problems will not alleviate them. If every single white
    South African left the country nothing will change for you. “You need to build your own house irregardless
    if someone else has built theirs or not”. You will still not have one until you build yours…
    Until you can realize this, which you probably never will, you will waste all your constructive energy
    on hatred instead of the real problems. And as you were reading / finish reading this post, you will feel the heavy urge
    to reject any logic or reasoning found within and argue it with all your being as the wool is too far over
    you eyes. Instead of letting go and seeing the truth (My heart bleeds for you)

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