South African student protests, 1968 to 2016

Dissent, disruption, decolonization

Fifty years after student protests shook much of the Cold War world, in the “West” and in the “East,” “Global 1968” has become the catchword to describe these profound generational revolts. We hear a lot about West Berlin, Paris, Berkeley, London, and then the Prague Spring, even occasionally the 1968 events in Mexico City may be mentioned; in contrast, none of the relevant overviews bring events to the fore that happened on the African continent in general, and in South Africa in particular. This beckons a number of questions: Was there something “1968” on the continent that matched the activism of the generation in revolt elsewhere? And as indeed there was, as we have shown in an overview article, how did students in African countries contribute to the global uprising with their own interpretations, and why have these been largely “forgotten” in the global discourse? And what

do they mean today when we talk about protests of students and youth? After all, Africa has recently become again a hotbed of significant protests of young people who share a great desire for democracy and social justice. From Senegal and Burkina Faso to Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, young Africans have hit the streets in their hundreds of thousands. South Africa for one has seen a massive revolt of university students during 2015 and 2016.

This article looks at South African student movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s, following some notes on the wider continent, specifically the May 1968 protests in Senegal, the only African 1968 event that has found marginal attention. Then the focus shifts towards the recent South African student protests of 2015–2016 to explore the ways in which the revolt of the generation that has come of age after the end of apartheid may relate to past uprisings in ideology and activist practice.

Dakar 1968

In May 1968 it was not only France where a student-led revolt almost sent a government packing; this also happened in Senegal. Students in the Senegalese capital Dakar had been on strike from March 1968, initially because of conditions in the university; from April 1968 they connected with broader concerns in the society, such as the high price of local staples, the fall in the standard of living, unemployment of graduates, and foreign domination of the domestic industry. In May the Senegalese trade unions adopted the students’ slogans and joined the struggles. Leo Zeilig, who has studied African student movements, and the Senegalese protests in particular, describes the events of Dakar ’68:

On demonstrations the crowd declared: “Power to the people: freedom for unions,” “We want work and rice.” The coalition of student and working-class demands culminated in the general strike that started on 31 May. Between 1 and 3 June “we had the impression that the government was vacant . . . ministers were confined to the administrative buildings . . . and the leaders of the party and state hid in their houses!”

The government reacted to the strike by ordering the army onto the university campus, with instructions to shoot on sight. During a demonstration after these events, workers and students decided to march to the presidential palace, which was protected by the army. French troops openly intervened, occupying key installations in the town, the airport, the presidential palace and of course the French embassy. The university was closed, foreign students were sent home and thousands of students were arrested.

There has been some discussion among former activists and analysts in how far the events in Dakar were connected to those in Paris. Although it seems clear that they were certainly no distant ripples of the storm in the French metropole, authors like Zeilig maintain that they were indeed a part of the global movement of 1968 youth revolt.

Today, the events that took place in Dakar in 1968 are seldom debated as central foci of a global Sixties protest movement. This is even more surprising as the brutal crackdown on the uprising in Senegal sent ripples to Europe. In September 1968, thousands demonstrated against the “Peace Award of the German Publishers’ Guild” to Senegalese President Léopold Senghor during the Frankfurt Book Fair. The protests were explicitly directed against both Senghor’s concept ofNégritude,said to ostensibly promote neocolonial development and the brutal crushing of the Senegalese opposition movements earlier that year.

Yet, the events in Dakar were related to global 1968 and those in the country’s former colonial capital, Paris, in a more complex ways than suggested by those who claim that “the French events . . . found their way quickly to Dakar.” The Senegalese movement not only began earlier; it was connected also to local histories of protest. In February 1961, 250 students had taken to the streets of Dakar to protest against the assassination of the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba. Analysts suggest that this was the moment when the Senegalese students shifted from an anticolonial orientation toward an anti-imperialist ideology.

African uprisings in 1968 also need to be considered in the context of broader waves of student activism and rebellion on the continent. Again, events in the Congo were central to this, as the assassination of Lumumba radicalized student politics with an impact on both the local, the African, and indeed the international (Global North) student movements. In West Germany, for instance, long before the massive protests against Senghor at the Frankfurt Book Fair, students had been marching in West Berlin against an official December 1964 visit of Congolese President Moise Tschombé, who was said to have been implicated in the murder of Lumumba, whom he replaced.

On the African continent, as elsewhere, student revolt took different forms in response to varying local, national, and regional conditions. The late 1960s saw protests in countries across Africa, including the Sudan, the Congo, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and much across the North African countries. The events we discussed in our recent overview demonstrate that students on the African continent revolted in very different ways and contexts than those in the North American and Western European settings. The many instances of uprising of Africa’s 1968 also show a diversity of settings and forms of activism on the continent. The unfolding of those events and the fact that some were at the time met with solidarity and related protests in the Western centers of the revolt highlight that Africa should not be left blank on the analytical map that seeks to understand 1968 in a global perspective.

South Africa’s 1968: student politics, in Black and white

South Africa, too, saw moments of transgressive politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which reinvented forms and ideologies of resistance, and, echoing protest elsewhere in the global 1968, broke rules in a variety of ways, some related to explicitly oppositional politics against apartheid and racialized capitalism, others more being indirectly political in the spirit of sixties’ counterculture.

Regarding resistance in South Africa, the decade between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s are usually seen as a period of a silence of the graveyard. Certainly harsh repression accompanied the economic and political heyday of apartheid after the suppression of African National Congress (ANC) politics and emerging pan-Africanism following the Sharpeville massacre of March 21, 1960. The attempt at engaging in armed struggle by the movements that had been driven underground after Sharpeville was short-lived. The Rivonia trial in 1964 ended with the sentencing of Nelson Mandela and others to lifelong imprisonment. In both public discourse and dominant historical scholarship, a long period of political quiescence ended only with the Soweto uprising of June 16, 1976.

Yet some have recently begun to look at the 1960s and 1970s quite differently, reminding us of political spaces and activism which have been neglected in standard histories of the South African struggle politics. Raymond Suttner maintains that the ANC underground, despite the harsh repression of the early 1960s, remained present in people’s homes and memories. He interrogates the history of the underground “as a pattern of social and political activity that has affected interpersonal relations and modes of conduct in society, including gender relations.” His work significantly underlines the preservation of resistance politics outside the public realms. Suttner’s narrative does not engage, however, with student organizations and activism that connected South Africa’s 1968 and the popular resistance that eventually led to the demise of apartheid.

The key role of student politics for the resurgence and reinvention of popular struggles in South Africa has been highlighted, however, by Julian Brown, a historian and political scientist based at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg who has studied resistance before the uprising of June 16, 1976; he characterizes the significant “road to Soweto”:

Fifty years ago, students were at the heart of South African politics, and new organizations were articulating a fierce critique of the apartheid social order. Their politics were frequently expressed through protests that were spontaneous and often disorganised, occasionally short-sighted and rarely sustainable. In a few short years, they remade politics in South Africa. Previously unimaginable ideas emerged in the course of these protests, and formed the basis of new political organizations. New classes and categories of activists became visible—not just students, but also workers. New identities became available, and new alliances—between students of different races and backgrounds, as well as between students and workers and others—became possible.”

Brown argues that the decade before the Soweto uprising was characterized by a reinvention of the politics of protest in South Africa, by the emergence of new ideas of dissent and new forms of protest. New repertoires of resistance emerged during student protests; they were then reflected in strikes and mass public rallies. Through their experimental activism students became radicalized; their protests came to echo those of workers and other groups in society. Significantly, other social groups began to adopt the methods and forms first tried out by students. New alliances were forged, though they tended to be jagged. The emergence of the new opposition did not happen in a single explosion of protest in 1976, Brown shows, “but rather through an unplanned series of experiments taking place over the course of a long decade.”

Student protests took different forms and were driven by different groups of students. From 1959 onward, when the infamously misnamed “Extension of University Education Act” was passed, South African students had been admitted to universities strictly along racial and ethnic lines. Student protests and forms of organizing were necessarily affected by this extreme form of educational apartheid, which closed down the few earlier spaces of cross-racial interaction at the country’s previously “open” universities. Student organizations, even where they were dedicated to oppositional politics, reflected the ravages of segregation. Despite these constraints, the few examples I discuss below demonstrate that tentative, complex alliances still emerged between different groups of students, and between students and other social groups.

Cape Town 1968

The UCT “Mafeje affair”

My first example comes from the country’s oldest university, the University of Cape Town (UCT), previously one of South Africa’s few “open” universities. In 1968 Archie Mafeje, a Black master’s graduate of UCT (cum laude) and by then in the process of completing his PhD at the University of Cambridge, was appointed to a senior lecturer position in social anthropology. The university offered him the job, but then, after government pressure by the apartheid regime, rescinded the offer.

The issue was discussed at the congress of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), which organized most of the UCT students at the time, and the idea emerged of a sit-in along the lines of the university occupations then taking place in the rest of the world. Some of those who were involved remember that the European protests were widely reported in South Africa and that students followed them with interest.

So when the university authorities failed to stand up against the government intervention in its hiring policies in August 1968, a mass meeting took place in the university’s grand Jameson Hall, normally the site of graduations and other academic events. After rousing speeches from student leaders, most of the 1,000 strong audience marched out, and about 600 students occupied the university’s administration building. The sit-in of students and some academic staff, as the action was called following the designation of similar forms of activism from Berkeley to West Berlin, resolved “to sit in this Administration Building until such time as the University Council has met to (1) Appoint Mafeje to University Staff, (2) Make a statement of policy to ensure that the future appointments be made solely on Academic grounds.”

Eventually, the occupiers—about ninety had stayed the course—gave up and left after one-and-a-half weeks. A white anthropologist was appointed in Mafeje’s place. South Africa’s oldest university had caved in to the demands of apartheid policy regarding university education.

The 1968 Mafeje affair must be understood as representative of the enforcement of apartheid policies in the academy. At UCT, which had been declared a white institution, Black students were admitted only under exceptional circumstances and any “nonwhite” applicant aspiring to study at UCT had to apply for a special permit from the government. Although this law did not pertain to academic staff members, Mafeje’s appointment was prevented.

Yet, for a brief period in August 1968, South Africa had had its taste of 1968. One of the occupiers described this action of a section of South African white students:

Six hundred of us decided to participate in the occupation, determined not to leave until UCT reversed its decision.For ten days we held out, sleeping on the floors. Food was cooked communally—even by the men who, at that time, were largely ignorant of the workings of a kitchen. Plenty of wine and marijuana were consumed and virginities were lost, but on the whole it was a carefully managed protest, with a sign asking for rubbish to be removed and the areas being occupied to be kept clean. Messages of support flowed in from students in Paris and London and there was favourable coverage in the international media.

Perhaps the most important thing was that we discovered intellectual liberation. Alternative lectures were organised on the stairs. We got a newspaper up and running. In one fell swoop we had thrown off our mental shackles. At last we were not just some isolated racist outpost of empire, but part of an international student movement.

The language of the UCT sit-in protest, with its emphasis on “academic freedom,” remained within the limits of liberal opposition against the apartheid regime. It fell short of more radical ideological orientations that were being discussed in the emerging Black student movement at the time, and among small groups of student activists. However, the form of the UCT students’ activism was fairly radical, by occupying a university space over more than a week; thus head-on challenging an academic environment that was distinctly conservative; one needs to remember that only one year earlier had UCT finally permitted students to attend lectures in casual dress.

The UWC “tie affair”

As elsewhere, in the global North and South, 1968 presented a social and political rather than a strictly calendarial moment. The tie affair at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) happened in 1970, but provides an excellent illustration of the intricate connections that South Africa’s 1968 made between emerging new forms of resistance, new political ideologies, and Sixties’ counterculture.

UWC is located on the windswept Cape Flats, the periphery of Cape Town. This is where—just over twenty kilometers down the road from UCT with its glorious setting on the slopes of Table Mountain—the apartheid government established a university for “Coloureds,” the apartheid category for mixed-race people who form the majority of Cape Town’s population. UWC was founded in 1960 as a direct consequence of the infamous apartheid law that ejected Coloured students from UCT, where a small but vocal Coloured intelligentsia had previously studied. Like the other “Black” universities that were established in the 1960s, UWC was planned as an apartheid institution, tasked to provide second-rate academic training for a category of the “nonwhite” population. Lecturers in the early years were predominantly white and, academically, did not shine brightly. The university was run in decidedly authoritarian fashion. There were few stirs in the university’s first decade. In 1966 some students boycotted the institution’s memorial service after the assassination of Hendrik Verwoerd, the “architect of apartheid.” This first-ever UWC student protest has been brilliantly reimagined by the writer Zoë Wiccomb, who was a student at UWC at the time. In A Clearing in the Bush she gives a detailed depiction of the authoritarian, unimaginative space the university was then. In the 1980s, UWC would gain fame for being South Africa’s “intellectual home of the left.” In the mid-1960s, it was a muted and dull institution.

UWC’s moment of mental liberation came in 1970. That year the university expelled one student by the name of Desmond Demas for not wearing a tie to lectures. Demas had felt that the formal dress code which required male students to wear a tie to class was oppressive. More than that, he was particularly frustrated that the students at white universities such as UCT could dress casually while the Coloured students at UWC were treated “as children.” A tie boycott by a growing number of UWC students followed. The protest was turned to imaginative fun. Protesters wore ties with their T-shirts, or bandanas knotted tie-style. Soon enough the university gave in and scrapped the requirement of wearing a tie to lectures.

The tie protest was UWC’s plunge into countercultural rebellion, as much as UCT’s sit-in had been, complete with all the everyday transgressions, including the freeing of sexuality and the consumption of soft drugs. Equally significantly was that the UWC students found that with their organized protest they could “beat the system.” The tie incident changed the political atmosphere to one of defiance at a time that a new political awareness, Black Consciousness, began to blow through South African Black campuses.

Black Consciousness and the formation of SASO

South Africa’s 1968 moment was not only about campus rebellions in the light of Sixties counterculture. The events at different universities were also profound revolts against apartheid and institutional racism. The most significant new organization of student protest arose in the last few days of 1968 when SASO (South African Students Organization) was founded during a meeting, exclusively attended by Black students at Mariannhill, a Catholic mission west of Durban, whose coeducational secondary school St. Francis was the alma mater of Stephen Bantu (Steve) Biko. Biko, born in 1946, became SASO’s first president when it was officially inaugurated at the Turfloop campus of the University of the North (UNIN) in July of the following year.

SASO arose out of profound revolts against apartheid and institutional racism, which spread across South African universities from the mid-1960s. At Fort Hare, the until then fairly independent Black institution for higher education, students in 1968 boycotted the installation of the new rector Johannes Marthinus de Wet, a member of the Afrikaner broederbond (a secret society of male white nationalists). Later in the year the university was closed and twenty-three students, among them Barney Pityana, arguably Biko’s closest comrade and friend and soon his successor as SASO president, were not allowed to come back.

The developments that led to the formation of SASO also need to be understood in the complex relations of Black students with the country’s long-existing national student organization NUSAS (National Union of South African Students). NUSAS, which had been founded in 1924, was open to students of all races. In the earlier apartheid period of the 1950s and 1960s, NUSAS ideologically emphasized “multiracialism” and “liberalism” of the South African variant that claimed incompatibility between apartheid and capitalism. Though even then a small number of Marxists and members of the South African Communist Party were members of the student association.

At the “Black” universities which had been established as apartheid institutions in the early 1960s, small numbers of students joined NUSAS, and at some institutions battles took place for permission to form autonomous Student Representative Councils (SRC) and to affiliate to NUSAS. Still there was also frustration about racist tendencies within the association, which despite its multiracial membership was essentially dominated and controlled by white students.

This was what Biko, at the time a medical student at the “non-European” section of the University of Natal, had in mind when he expressed his objection to “the intellectual arrogance of white people that makes them believe that white leadership isa sine qua nonin this country and that whites are divinely appointed pace-setters in progress.” In 1968 he and others formed SASO, which for political reasons offered membership to students of all “Black” sections of the population, which included those assigned to the apartheid categories of “African,” “Coloured,” and “Indian.” In 1971 the SASO Policy Manifesto set out the Black Consciousness doctrine.

On the organizational level, SASO activists held that to avoid domination by white “liberals,” Black people had to organize independently. In 1970, Biko wrote in the SASO newsletter, suggestively signing as “Frank Talk”:

The role of the white liberal in the Black man’s history in South Africa is a curious one. Very few Black organizations were not under white direction. True to their image, the white liberals always knew what was good for the Blacks and told them so. . . .

Nowhere is the arrogance of the liberal ideology demonstrated so well as in their insistence that the problems of the country can only be solved by a bilateral approach involving both Black and white. This has, by and large, come to be taken in all seriousness as the modus operandi in South Africa by all those who claim they would like a change in the status quo. Hence the multiracial political organizations and parties and the “non-racial” student organizations, all of which insist on integration not only as an end goal but also as a means.

SASO’s ideology was profoundly influenced byits leadership’s reading of Frantz Fanon, particularly the militant philosopher’s Black Skin, White Masks,and the African AmericanBlack Power movement. The focus was initially on the psychological empowerment of Black people; the adherents of Black Consciousness believed that Black people needed to rid themselves of any sense of racial inferiority, an idea they expressed by popularizing the slogan “Black is beautiful.” They were aware that this was relevant not only to students. As early as 1971, the SASO leadership discussed proposals to cast off the students-only attitude, including the formation of a Black Workers’ Council (later renamed the Black Workers Project) and launched the Black People’s Convention (BPC), a new political movement that would soon run alongside SASO. Practically the activists organized Black Community Programmes (BCPs).

In the early years of its existence, the all-Black SASO was allowed space to grow at the Black universities, in part because the government regarded the separate Black student association and its emphasis on largely psychological-oriented Black consciousness as compatible with the apartheid ideology. They were to learn soon that SASO, and more generally the Black Consciousness movement that Biko promoted, posed a major threat to the regime. But by the time that SASO began to be more active in political campaigns, the organization had established already firm structural roots, which made it difficult for the government to entirely suppress it. An early example of the dialectics of repression and radicalization happened during the 1972 student protests at “Turfloop” after its Student Representative Council (SRC) president, Onkgopotse Tiro, was expelled after speaking out against Bantu education during a graduation ceremony at the university. Nineteen seventy-four became a crucial year: in January SASO officially condemned the presence of the Apartheid forces in Namibia; the organization also reaffirmed the non-collaboration stance of the Black Consciousness movement and condemned the Bantustan leaders. In September of the same year a pro-FRELIMO rally to celebrate the ascension of FRELIMO (Mozambican liberation movement under the leadership of Samora Machel) into power in Mozambique was held at UNIN despite the administration’s refusal to grant permission for the action.

Repression followed suit. Eighty SASO and BPC leaders were detained without trial for their support of the pro-FRELIMO rally, then tried at the Supreme Court in Pretoria; in 1976 they were sentenced to incarceration on Robben Island. In 1974 SASO was listed as one of the affected organizations under the Affected Organization Act of 1974. This prohibited it from receiving foreign funding to pursue its objectives. In July 1975, SASO held its annual conference under very difficult conditions. Only one member of the executive committee could attend the meeting. The rest of the executive members were either banned or had been arrested. Finally in October 1977, SASO and other Black Consciousness organizations were banned under the Internal Security Act. The most brutal example of repression of course was the murder of Steve Biko while in detention in September 1977.

Despite the organizational split between NUSAS and SASO, white and Black student activists continued working together in specific campaigns. In the early 1970s, radical anti-apartheid and increasingly “New Left” white students at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) invited speakers to rediscover the history of resistance, which had been hidden through the repressive climate of the 1960s. This was followed up with a campaign for the release of all political prisoners, including the Namibian freedom fighters detained on Robben Island. Students engaged with workers and addressed labor conditions, initially on campus grounds, but soon this was taken out of the university. In July 1971 a proposal was made at aNUSAS conference that wages and economic commissions, based on a model developed at the University of Natal in Durban, be set up at Wits, UCT, Rhodes University, and the University of Natal’s section in Pietermaritzburg. The proposal called for a national effort for students to present research on labor conditions to university board meetings and to support workers, on and off campuses, in presenting their demands.

The Durban moment

As South African student politics grew more radical, the protests initially confined to university politics increasingly embraced nonstudent concerns; particularly, they became instrumental in laying the grounds for the new Black trade unions. Radical academics too were involved in the efforts around strikes and Black labor unions. The connection between students, radical academics, workers, and other marginalized social groups becomes particularly apparent in what has become known as the “Durban moment,” probably the most significant political development in the wake of South Africa’s 1968.

Early 1973 saw a massive strike wave in the port town of Durban. By the end of March 1973, almost 100,000 mainly African workers, approximately half of the entire African workers employed in Durban, had come out on strike. Through songs and marches, workers made their demands heard—the first public mass action since the activism of the 1950s. This was political action, and at once a labor revolt; workers exercised the power of factory-based mass action. What looked like spontaneous strikes originated in a complex mix: low wages, the humiliation of pass laws and racism, the hardship of migrant labor, forced removals, and significantly the denial of Black workers’ right to organize. The strikes signalled the growth of militant non-racial trade unionism, and a revived spirit of rebellion in the country.

The Durban moment heralded the start of a new wave of resistance that led to the Soweto uprising, the massive uprisings of the 1980s, and eventually the demise of the regime. There were links between the eruption of workers’ action and the underground liberation movements; the resurgence of Marxist thinking among a new generation came into play. There was however also, though this has sometimes been denied, decisive influence of the recently emerged Black Consciousness movements’ ideas. Of special importance were links between activist intellectuals, who in different ways embodied South Africa’s 1968 moment, thinking in new ideological perspectives, and having tried out new methods of activism. Most significant was the special political, intellectual, and personal friendship between Steve Biko and Richard (“Rick”) Turner, a lecturer in political philosophy at the University of Natal. Both these brilliant young men sadly were assassinated by the apartheid state, Biko in September 1977, Turner in January 1978.

In the early seventies, Turner, who was a researcher into labor issues and a community and labor organizer, was part of the core group that formed the first “wages commission” in Durban. Before that, Turner, who was born in Cape Town in 1941, had been instrumental in the radicalization of students. In 1966 he had returned to South Africa from Paris where he had completed at the Sorbonne a doctoral thesis on the political works of Jean-Paul Sartre. The experience with the French intellectual left had a profound impact on the young South African, which he shared with students and friends first in Cape Town, and from 1970 in Durban.

Turner’s thinking drew from French leftist intellectual traditions. Sartre was a major influence, but he also incorporated Marxist perspectives; among others, he translated and taught Althusser’s works. Capitalism was the basic cause of social inequality and conflict in South Africa, Turner argued, though the South African “capitalist human model” was profoundly culturalized and racialized. He imagined “an ideal possible society in South Africa” as “participatory democracy.” This would involve not only a universal franchise but also “the replacement of private ownership of the means of production by workers’ control in industry and agriculture.”

Turner emphasized the necessity of utopian thinking, which he understood as the imagination of another possible South African society. He further held that those fighting for liberation ought to “prefigure the future. Organizations must be participatory rather than authoritarian. They must be areas in which people can experience human solidarity and learn to work with one another in harmony and in love.”

Turner’s advocacy of participatory democracy included an appreciation of Black Consciousness, although he cautioned that “an assertion of the dignity of Blackness is not enough” as an orientation of resistance. While engaging in comradely discussion with the Black Consciousness movement, Turner rather uniquely called on South African whites to develop a critical “White Consciousness,” thus calling on new thinking about race as a social force. White South Africans had to understand, Turner charged, that the existing South African society and their position in it was a result not of the “triumph of white civilization” but of the “bloody and ambiguous birth of a new technology”; they ought to come to see these things, however, “not in guilt for the past but in hope for the future.”

Turner challenged apartheid and white South African liberalism; he also was critical of the vanguardist departures of South African Marxism, especially the Communist Party with its close affinity to the Soviet bloc. In a similar vein, a small but vocal number of activists, students, and intellectuals of the South African New Left took up the challenges of Black Consciousness and engaged a radical critique of the multiracial liberal politics that had hitherto dominated (white) opposition. They assessed “race” and its relation to class in apartheid society and explored different forms of Marxist and socialist critiques.

These New Left approaches blended in well with the 1980s dominant opposition politics, which emphatically embraced non-racialism. What though remained of the history of student and alliance politics of the 1960s and 1970s? The following conclusion will think through the significance of South Africa’s 1968 moment for understanding the trajectories of student protests, and particularly its legacies for the recent movements of a new generation of students in post-apartheid South Africa.

The legacy of 1968 in South Africa’s Fanonian moment

Beginning in March 2015, students at South African universities rose up in a mass revolt. They marched on campuses, attacked holy cows of colonial legacy with graffiti, and sometimes used other, more controversial means. They made their voices heard from their campuses, from the streets, from the grounds of Parliament in Cape Town, and the lawns of the Union buildings, and the seat of national government in Pretoria. Students brought down a symbol of colonialism and exploitation, they fought against fee increases in higher education and demanded free education, they called for the end of racism and of the neoliberal outsourcing practices of support services at universities. Students demanded free education in more than one sense—demanding on the one hand, that tuition fees be scrapped, and on the other hand, that the contents, methodologies, and academic teachers reflect the post-apartheid “free” South Africa.

Decolonizing institutions, decolonizing knowledge, and decolonizing the mind have been the tags of the new generation of activists who have dominated South Africa’s “Fanonian moment,” to employ the term coined by the political philosopher of postcolonialism Achille Mbembe. Mbembe, a professor at Wits in Johannesburg, explained the Fanonian moment during a talk in Cape Town in 2009 as the point of postcolonial trajectories when about twenty years after a country’s initial independence, a new generation enters the social scene and asks new questions regarding the post-colony’s incomplete decolonization.

“Decolonization” has been the catch phrase of the most recent student movements across South Africa. A closer look shows, however, that behind this new language arguably lurks a resurgence of Black Consciousness philosophy. What, one may ask, makes the ideology that was developed by Biko and his associates half a century ago during the heyday of apartheid relevant for the “class of 2015,” who were mostly born after Nelson Mandela became president in 1994? The answer is, many of today’s students will argue, that while South African universities generally have today a Black majority among their student body (though not among their academic staff), their institutional cultures, symbolism, and curricula have changed only marginally. Black students often describe their experiences as alienating, observing that the norm at universities continues to cater for white, middle class, able-bodied, and heteronormative identified male students.

Within the new student movements, the legacy of Steve Biko and SASO gained importance again. Young students in the twenty-first century regard Biko’s call to autonomous Black action as being still relevant for contemporary South Africa. Black Consciousness philosophy has grown momentous again for students who insist upon the reform of curricula, which they say convey racist and colonialist forms of knowledge and ignore, even scorn, African intellectual experience. Calls on Black people to first free their own minds, become conscious of their own, and each other’s conditions, and work together to change the material conditions of Black students have been the guiding principles of the new South African student movements as they were for the generation of the late 1960s and 1970s. Biko’s writings thus have been read again extensively by young students who regard his call to autonomous Black action as still relevant for contemporary South Africa.

Notably the new generation has also drawn on the writings of Fanon, taking up especially his philosophical critique of racism and insisting, as he had done, the need for Black people to seize recognition. The 1970s Black Consciousness ideology, as previously mentioned, was profoundly influenced bythe SASO leadership’s reading of Frantz Fanon, particularly the militant philosopher’s Black Skin, White Masksand the African AmericanBlack Power movement; in the post-apartheid generation, certainly some of the most thoughtful young intellectuals have engaged Fanon in a fresh perspective. Young activist-intellectuals have emphasised the need for Black people to seize recognition. Radical critics furthermore have taken up Fanon’s incisive comments on the perils of the postcolonial period as applicable for post-apartheid South Africa. Fanon has been engaged by student activists also for his militant critique of the normative compulsion to nonviolence.

With keen re-readings of Fanon and Biko, the new generation has taken up a philosophical critique of racism and the postcolonial condition. With claims to mutual recognition and decolonization as a precondition of true humanism, the activist practice has focused on disruption: disruption of the spaces at universities and beyond, insisting that “business as usual” has prevented the decolonization of the post-1994 South African society.

The recent student protests arose in a situation that has been marked by growing socioeconomic inequality in post-apartheid South Africa and by the ANC government’s policies of neoliberal restructuring. South Africa’s new affluent elite, with connections to those in government, ostensibly asserts its Africanity. As pointed out by Nigel Gibson, a neoliberal (or: corporate) Black Consciousness discourse prevails in South Africa today. This exclusionist ideology has little in common, however, with the militant Black Consciousness philosophy associated with Steve Biko. Rather, in the new dispensation, the “dehumanising and derogating attitudes formerly projected towards all Blacks are now channelled towards the Black poor.” Put together, these developments have caused a disaffection of urban youth with the ANC government. For many youngsters, the older generation’s claim to respect on the basis of its struggle credentials doesn’t hold true anymore.

It appears that notwithstanding different technologies of struggle, such as the high significance of digital social media in the recent movements, ideological trajectories—particularly Black Consciousness, and a focus on transgressive and disruptive forms of resistance—connect the 2015–2016 student movements to those of the late 1960s and 1970s. This analysis shows that resistance, and especially student protests even before the 1976 Soweto uprising, erupted in multiple disruptive actions already during the decade before 1976, such as those that occurred at UCT in 1968, and at UWC in 1970. These experiences shaped new groups of activists, new forms of protests, and new political visions, which eventually left the confines of student politics and entered into, though often uneasy, alliances of students and some radical activist academics with workers and other marginalized social groups. The brief, though momentous Durban moment significantly evidences this. In their most vital moments the recent movements have echoed this power of dissent, creativity, imagination and solidarity.

  1. Heike Becker and David Seddon, “Africa’s 1968: Protests and Uprisings Across the Continent,” Review of African Political Economy online (May 31, 2018).
  2. Leo Zeilig, Revolt and Protest: Student Politics and Activism in Sub-Saharan Africa (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007), 181–82.
  3. Zeilig, Revolt and Protest, 182.
  4. Timothy Scott Brown, West Germany and the Global Sixties: The Anti-authoritarian Revolt, 1962–1978 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 117–20.
  5. Brown, West Germany and the Global Sixties, 118.
  6. Pascal Bianchini, “Le mouvement étudiant sénégalais: Un essai d’interpretation,” in La société sénégalaise entre le local et le global, ed. Momar Coumba Diop (Paris: Karthala, 2002), 359–396.
  7. Pedro A. G. Monaville, “Decolonizing the University: Postal Politics, the Student Movement, and Global 1968 in the Congo,” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2013).
  8. Becker and Seddon, “Africa’s 1968.”
  9. Raymond Suttner, The ANC Underground in South Africa to 1976: A Social and Historical Study (Johannesburg: Jacana, 2008), 15.
  10. Julian Brown, The Road to Soweto: Resistance and the Uprising of 16 June 1976. (London: James Currey, 2016), vii.
  11. Brown, The Road to Soweto, 4.
  12. Martin Plaut, “How the 1968 Revolution Reached Cape Town,” [last accessed 5 January 2018]
  13. BUZV UCT. Photograph and Clipping Collection, University of Cape Town Libraries, Special Collections. “Academic Freedom—1968: Sit-in Protest.” mss_buz_acad_freedom_1968_sit_in.
  14. Plaut, “How the 1968 Revolution Reached Cape Town.”
  15. Cornelius Thomas, “Finding Voice, Vocabulary and Community. The UWC Student Movement 1972–1976,” Journal for Contemporary History 39 no. 1 (June 2014): 21.
  16. Zoë Wiccomb, “A Clearing in the Bush,” in You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town (New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2000), 37–61.
  17. Thomas, “Finding Voice,” 21.
  18. Thomas, “Finding Voice,” 22.
  19. Steve Biko, I Write What I Like: Selected Writings by Steve Biko (London: Heinemann, 1987), 24.
  20. Steve Biko, I Write What I like. Steve Biko, A Selection of his Writings, 40th Anniversary Edition (Johannesburg: Picador Africa, 2017), 21.
  21. Brown, The Road to Soweto, 115.
  22. Glenn Moss, The New Radicals: A Generational Memoir of the 1970s (Johannesburg: Jacana Media, 2014), 105–20.
  23. Moss, The New Radicals, 121–46.
  24. South African History Online. “1973 Durban Strikes.”
  25. [last accessed August 6, 2018]
  26. See Baruch Hirson, Year of Fire, Year of Ash: The Soweto Revolt (London: Zed Books, 2016 (1979), 289.
  27. Richard Turner, The Eye of the Needle: Towards Participatory Democracy in South Africa (London, New York, Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2015 (1972), 104.
  28. Turner, The Eye of the Needle, 100.
  29. Turner, The Eye of the Needle, 110.
  30. Turner, The Eye of the Needle, 108.
  31. Turner, The Eye of the Needle, 10.
  32. Turner, The Eye of the Needle, 124.
  33. Turner, The Eye of the Needle, 119.
  34. Turner, The Eye of the Needle, 122–23.
  35. Moss, The New Radicals, 150.
  36. Heike Becker, “South Africa’s May 1968: Decolonising Institutions and Minds,” Review of African Political Economy online, February 17, 2016.
  37. Leigh-Ann Naidoo, “Contemporary Student Politics in South Africa,” in Students Must Rise: Youth Struggle in South Africa Before and Beyond Soweto ’76. Anne Heffernan and Noor Nieftagodien, eds. (Johannesburg: Wits University Press), 181.
  38. Nigel Gibson, Fanonian Practices in South Africa: From Steve Biko to Abahlali baseMjondolo (Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2011), 194.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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