24November

Deciphering the meanings and explaining the South African higher education student protests

By Dr Saleem Badat, Programme Director: International Higher Education & Strategic Projects of The Andrew W Mellon Foundation. In this essay, Dr Badat calls for a dispassionate analysis of the student protest movement in South Africa.

The article is also available in Inyathelo's latest Annual Report.

Deciphering the meanings and explaining the South African higher education student protests

One of the most profound and moving placards displayed during the 2015-2016 student protests had to be ‘Our parents were SOLD dreams in 1994. We are just here for the REFUND.’ Higher education holds the promise of contributing to social justice, economic and social development and democratic citizenship. Yet, this promise often remains unrealized and higher education instead becomes a powerful mechanism of social exclusion and injustice. The reason is that education, of course, is not an autonomous social force. For education to become more equitable and contribute effectively to social justice in South Africa, there have to be bold and purposeful social justice-oriented policies and initiatives in other arenas of society.

The character of the student protests

Have the protests announced the possible re-entry of a potentially powerful constituency on the higher education and political terrain, which could have considerable impact at the level of institutions, policy, and practice? There is already talk among student leaders that the zero per cent fee increase will also be a demand for 2017 and future years. This has massive implications for universities, unless there is a considerable increase in the public funds voted to higher education and universities.

Is it the case that students have discovered that through mobilization and collective action they can wield power, and that through this power they can achieve results? Equally, have they learned the limits of social media, and the distinction between mass mobilization and mass organisation? Whether the protests will be a catalyst for far-reaching transformation in and beyond universities and higher education remains to be seen. At some institutions, such as UCT, Stellenbosch and Wits, the protestors returned to class and wrote fi nal exams. Other universities such as UWC and CPUT, which have a largely lower middle class and working class student body, experienced arson and damage to buildings running into the millions, were closed early, and had fi nal examinations postponed until early 2016. What may this mean for student unity in 2016? Moreover, how will relations between university leadership and management, and students, be repaired in light of student complaints about curbs on the right to protest, the securitization of some campuses, and allegations of violence against students?


Driving societal changes

The questions to ask are whether the student protest movement contributed to reproducing, undermining or transforming social relations in higher education, institutions and practices; whether it on the whole ‘made gains or lost ground’, and whether it ‘advanced the interests’ of the economically and socially marginalized classes and social groups or set them back. Even if the activities of the 2015-2016 student protest movement did not constitute an immediate and serious threat to ANC political hegemony and the overall system of class relations, its struggles might nonetheless weaken the pillars of that system so that the ANC is compelled to restructure the institutional mechanisms that maintain the current system and its own hegemony.

In this process, new conditions and a signifi cantly altered terrain of struggle could be established which may be more favourable to the efforts of class and popular movements that seek a different political and policy trajectory and a different kind of society than the one over which the ANC appears content to preside. There should be no blanket objection to the ideal of free higher education or, for that matter, free health care for all.

Free higher education exists in a number of countries, as one of the markers of a just society. It can be possible in South Africa. A policy of free higher education requires fundamental re-thinking of and changes in social goals, priorities and policies. In addition, the state would have to provide universities with their full running costs, part of which they currently derive from tuition and residence fees from students. This would total many billions of Rands. Absent this, without fees universities would collapse.

A policy of free higher education requires fundamental re-thinking of and changes in social goals, priorities and policies. In addition, the state would have to provide universities with their full running costs, part of which they currently derive from tuition and residence fees from students. This would total many billions of Rands. Absent this, without fees universities would collapse.

Free higher education would be a great boon for wealthy and middleclass parents who can afford to pay university tuition/residence fees and associated costs; in effect, it would be a public subsidy to the very rich and well-off middle classes, and further entrench inequalities. An alternativeapproach could be to strive to progressively realize free higher education, beginning with those most in fi nancial need, alongside a parallel process of a wider reformulation of social goals, priorities and policies. ‘Rhodes Must Fall’, ‘Rhodes So White’, and the demand for changing the name of Rhodes University are metaphors for much larger and deeper issues. They are a reminder that there is unfi nished business, that there can be no reconciliation or peace without social justice at universities and in the economy and society more widely.


The above text is derived from a journal article, Badat, S. (2015) ‘Deciphering the Meanings and Explaining the South African Higher Education Students Protests of 2015-16’, Pax Academica African Journal of Academic Freedom, Nos. 1&2, pp. 71-106; and was a point of discussion at the 2016 Annual Vice Chancellors Retreat convened by Inyathelo in Cape Town.

The article is also available in Inyathelo's latest Annual Report.