Sub-Saharan Africa 

The Rainbow Revolution: Why the South African students’ movement #FeesMustFall stands for much more than tuition fees

A “Rainbow Nation” was Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s idea of post-apartheid South Africa. It was 1994, apartheid had been abolished, Nelson Mandela got elected for President, the hopes of the mainly black South African population were high that their future would be a better one: A future in peace and social justice. Today, more than 20 years after Mandela’s release, universities all across the country are repeatedly being closed, destroyed and torched, foreigners are being chased away from their homes and businesses and miners’ strikes are being shot down by national security forces. This is certainly not the rainbow everyone was hoping for!

When in October 2015 the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) announced an increase of tuition fees by over ten percent in the following year, the students started the protest movement #FeesMustFall, which quickly spread to universities all across the country. The partly violent protest led to the temporary shutdown of Wits and Rhodes University in Grahamstown and the considerable damaging of university infrastructure. The conflict came to a halt when the government declared there would be no increase in tuition fees after all. In August 2016, however, the Council on Higher Education announced that a tuition fee increase of zero percent would be unsustainable since inflation should be considered. Consequently, the protests started again, going on until this day. The overall damage is said to have hit 50 million euros.

However, the recent events are not surprising, if one takes into account the three notions that form the basis of the current protests: a (1) notion of interdependent economic and educational inequality, a (2) feeling of prevailing institutional racism with its roots in apartheid and finally a (3) a nation-wide narrative of bad governance.

The situation for non-white South Africans has not changed significantly since the end of apartheid. The country’s overall problem becomes tangible even when driving through Cape Town, South Africa’s flagship city concerning multiculturalism and open-mindedness. The way from the airport into the city center leads through townships, improvisedly erected settlements with poor basic services such as clean water and electricity, which cover both the right and the left side of the busy N2 national route. During apartheid, black people were forced to move into townships to make place for “white only” areas. Nowadays, 22 years later, townships are still widely spread over the country. They are inhabited by black Africans only. And what is more, in Cape Town, the residents of those corrugated-iron shacks have an unobstructed view of Table Mountain and its privileged, noble, white-owned villas, at the end of N2.

Some might forget that South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world (concerning equal distribution of income even the most unequal country with a GINI coefficient over 60), that race remains a significant indicator of income level and that unemployment among black South Africans stands at 39 per cent compared to 8.3 percent among whites. This economic inequality leads to unequal opportunities in the country’s education system: Higher education, i.e. access to universities, is expensive and therefore more of a private privilege than a public good. Since white students are generally better off than black students, they usually go to university without saying while their black peers often lack the money. Thus, the structural inequality between black and white people is reinforced. To reinforce this disparity between black and white even further by increasing the tuition fees reminds unpleasantly of the so called “Bantu Education Act”, adopted by apartheid government in 1953, which enforced racially separate education facilities.

The protest movement #FeesMustFall is also about institutional racism, which is, 22 years after the end of apartheid, still abounding and leading to social tensions in almost every aspect of everyday life. This became visible when in October 2015, demonstrators gathered outside the South African parliament in Cape Town under the banners of #FeesMustFall, singing “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”, a pan-African liberation anthem which used to be sung as part of the anti-colonial movements. Moreover, several months before, a statue of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes was removed from Rhodes University campus, following severe student protest against institutional racism and white supremacy at the campus. This is neither inappropriate nor surprising, given the fact that for example at University of Cape Town, only five of 200 senior professors are black. Analogically, the #FeesMustFall movement in Johannesburg officially demands “free quality decolonised education”. The current protest is thus not only about equal academic and economic opportunities, but also about South African self determination and decolonisation.

Moreover, #FeesMustFall takes the same line as the across-the-board discontent of black South Africans with their government. President Jacob Zuma is accused of corruption and of improper state spending at his private home. The movement #ZumaMustFall, which stands close to and already cooperated with #FeesMustFall, has demanded Zuma’s resignation for more than one year. Just recently, even the chief whip of Zuma’s party African National Congress (ANC), Jackson Mthembu, called on Zuma to step down. In summer 2016, the ANC suffered a major electoral setback in municipal elections. The overall trust of South Africans in state and politics also suffered greatly when in August 2012 the police shot dead 40 miners gathering for a wild cat strike in rural Marikana to protest for higher wages.

South Africa is still a troubled nation. As a post-conflict society, racism and social tensions are daily fare. Still, there is a young generation which is trying to practice democratisation and decolonisation from below. This is the “Rainbow” generation, the post-apartheid generation, which was promised a better future but was let down by their government. Whether they call themselves #FeesMustFall or #ZumaMustFall – they understood that it is basically about #ThePeopleMustRise and that it is time to claim their rights.

Photo by Myolisi (CC BY-SA 4.0 license)


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