Beyond a demand for fees to fall, the South African student protests of 2016 sought to achieve something grander: to decolonise the curriculum in institutions of higher learning and eventually the broader society. These group of young people were caught up in the ethos of their generation: a contempt for rigid institutions and a desire for more collaboration.
The Rhodes Must Fall movement inspired university students across the country to decide to organise themselves outside of the political parties they belonged to, the parties that seemed unconcerned about their struggles at the time. Despite their different party affiliations and schools of thought, students rallied in light of their shared struggles against fees. Soon they realised that party loyalty posed a threat to unity and will eventually derail the movement.
Their apprenticeship in the youth structures of political parties, such as the South African Students Congress, EFF Students’ Command, DA Youth and Pan Africanist Student Movement of Azania had taught them about resistance and made them ready for protest. They were schooled about the revered leaders who came before them, those who have fought for the freedom of South Africa. They are the children of Steve Biko, Winnie Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Ahmed Kathrada, Lillian Ngoyi and many others.
Students came together in pursuit of free decolonised education. As they began to grow and gain notoriety, political parties inevitably became interested. Political interest started to infiltrate the movement and influence the agenda of the protests. Certain students were also singled out by the media as spokespersons of the movement because of their charismatic personalities.
The Fallists then decided to decentralise power from a few to the many. A working committee would be elected at different universities to represent students only in negotiations with management. The small committees comprised students from the different political parties and were accountable directly to the student populace. Decision making would be a collective group activity.
Branded political party T-shirts were subsequently banned from mass meetings and protests. Students were expected to cleave their party loyalties and pledge themselves to the ideals of the #FeesMustFall movement. And constant feedback was expected from the committee members to rest of the group on a daily basis at the mass meetings. The idea was to create a flat structure.
Furthermore, as a generation still wrestling with the legacy of Mandela, students were wary of what they perceived to be the overly celebrated legacy of the father of the nation. To most young people Nelson Mandela is seen as a bigger than life invention of the previous generation, a man who has made major political decisions on his own and in secret at Codesa to the detriment of posterity.
“What did they talk about? And what did he say? Is the country where it is right now because of those secret talks?”
And so by rejecting the strong-man leadership model as we know it, #FeesMustFall activists decided to create a space for true equality, where no one person is privileged over others.This was to be an environment where all the decisions were made by the people and through consultation: true participatory democracy.
The Black Lives Matter model became an example for the Fallists.
When neighbourhood watch co-ordinator George Zimmerman was acquitted by the court, in Sanford, Florida for the shooting to death of young black teenager Trayvon Martin, it sparked the long held frustration of communities of African Americans terrorised by the police. The subsequent deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York were also critical moments in displaying the continued disregard for black lives by the justice system.
Black Lives Matter used different methods to campaign against the violence and systemic racism towards black people in the US, through holding mass protests and speaking out against police brutality and racial profiling. With a long lineage of black radical tradition, from the civil rights movement and the Black Panthers, Black Lives Matter draws its radical politics from the writers and activists of that time, such as Malcolm X, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin and Kwame Ture.
However, Black Lives Matter has often been falsely perceived by some as a terrorist organisation of lawless vigilantes. And others insisting that though gun violence is a problem in America, this is not a racial issue because “All lives Matter” just like “Blue lives Matter” too. Fallists share a similar experience with Blaclk Lives Matter activists in being misunderstood for what they stand for and the methods of their protests seen as violent and chaotic.
And they too wrestle with the polarising legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and his fight against segregation as we do with that of Nelson Mandela.
The contested impact of these much celebrated struggle icons are in truth at the heart of the contemporary black struggle. How far have we come in the fight against racial oppression? Have we gone anywhere at all after all these years? And what path shall we take to secure a different future?
The answers to these questions are not clear.
With rising inequality, especially across racial lines and a burdensome history of dispossession, what is certain is that Millennials are frustrated by intransigent political party systems and respectability politics. They are seeking new, inclusive and innovative ways to organise society; a more open and collaborative system.
What #FeesMustFall was attempting to do was invent a new kind of politics in the black radical tradition. By relieving itself from the chains of hierarchy, it sought to create an amoeba movement without shape or structure for inclusivity and participation. Fallists wanted to organise beyond the political party by embracing the collaboratory ethos of being Millennials.
Women, members of the LGBTI community and people with disabilities were to be given the same time and weight in voicing their struggles just like the rest. This amoeba movement was meant to ensure that a formal structure does not exclude anyone just as political parties have done over the years. Women were not to be sacrificed at the expense of the priorities of men. It aspired to accommodate different intersectional identities as it grew in numbers.
Millennials soon realised that it is nearly impossible to draw up a list of all the many and different challenges that students face. There are those who are oppressed because of their gender, some for nationality, disability, religion, class, etc. And to create a formal structure risks the marginalisation of those already disregarded in society.
The movement sought to absorb in their ranks those who were forgotten, silenced and dehumanised, to make space for their chosen identity and enter with them in their quest for liberation. No longer would freedom be achieved at the expense of black women and queer bodies.
The weekly recurring protests in South Africa are a result of growing unemployment and low service delivery and a sign of communities losing faith in their public representatives. These extended and violent strikes, like the ones in Malamulele, in Limpopo and Mafikeng in North West, are indicative of citizens frustrated by politicians who only come to them during the election period.
Furthermore, State Capture has exposed a decaying liberation party locked in factionalism and a corrupt organisational culture. The youth witnessed a party at war with itself, refusing to change and self-correct to its own detriment.
It is clear that in order to deal with the country’s many and complex socio-economic challenges, Millennials envisage a post-party form of organising society. Where individuals can collaborate to solve the country’s social ills across ideological and party lines. DM