In his 1923 essay “The Problem of Generations,” Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim argued that the social consciousness of youth is heavily influenced by epochal events in which youth play a prominent role. Each generation, he wrote, develops an original and distinctive consciousness connected to the scope and pace of historical change that is potentially at odds with the previous generation.
Over the past year, we have seen such age-based divides emerge, widen, and erupt in South Africa in a series of student uprisings that have called attention to institutional racism and inaccessibility at universities and the working conditions of precarious campus workers. Their grievances speak to the violent continuities between the apartheid past and present, where, for the vast majority, access to post-secondary education and a job is out of reach.
The student demonstrations come at a critical juncture in post-apartheid South Africa, with a rising tide of community protests against inadequate service delivery and labor unrest outside officially sanctioned union channels. Alongside widespread state corruption, these various upsurges are contributing to the erosion of the ruling African National Congress’s legitimacy.
Post-Apartheid Myths and Realities
On October 23, under the banner of Fees Must Fall, thousands of students gathered at the union buildings in Pretoria, South Africa’s seat of government to protest a proposed 10 percent tuition fee increase at universities across the country. Earlier the same week, students had mobilized at university campuses in Cape Town, marching to South Africa’s parliamentary buildings as the finance minister delivered the nation’s interim budget. There they stormed the parliamentary precinct, where they were met by a phalanx of police firing stun grenades.
The country’s higher education minister, Blade Nzimande, also general secretary of the country’s moribund Communist Party, addressed students from behind an iron fence and suggested they should be content with a 6 percent increase. Unmoved, students escalated the protests in subsequent days, engulfing university campuses in demonstrations. Campus security and police responded with brutality.
But the students prevailed. Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president, announced that tuition fee hikes would be scrapped for 2016 — a momentous victory for students in a country where less than 5 percent of families can comfortably afford tuition.
The Fees Must Fall movement, however, has been about more than student demands for lower tuition. At the Universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and the Western Cape, students organized around the working conditions and wages of outsourced campus workers — a growing problem born of universities’ desire to cut costs.
Outsourced campus workers struggle to survive on poverty wages, as a study conducted by University of Witwatersrand sociologists documents; in one case a cleaner at the university was found to be supporting twenty-one extended family members across the country on a monthly salary of around $100 USD. (Approximately one-third of South Africans are now employed in contingent jobs, fixed-term contracts, and informal occupations, most of which pay less than $200 per month.)
In a remarkable display of solidarity early last month, hundreds of students were arrested at the University of Johannesburg while demonstrating for improved wages and working conditions on campuses. Once again, the students were successful. The University of Cape Town, Witwatersrand, and University of Johannesburg all bowed to student pressure to end labor outsourcing.
Fees Must Fall built on the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movement and the student mobilizations at the University of Kwa Zulu Natal over campus safety and fee increases. Originally launched in March to demand the removal of a statue of colonizer Cecil Rhodes from the University of Cape Town campus, the RMF movement quickly took on issues like institutional racism, the absence of black faculty members, and the continued veneration of colonial and apartheid symbols on university campuses.
For philosopher Achille Mbembe these movements reflect a sense of “political impatience, in which brashness, disruption and a new anti-decorum ethos are meant to bring down the pretense of normality and the logics of normalization in this most abnormal society.”
Yet the connection between the two movements goes beyond mere frustration and disruptive protest tactics — they both speak to the lived realities of race and class in post-apartheid South Africa. Race still structures exclusion from educational institutions and erects barriers to housing, jobs, and services. To harken back to earlier debates around race and class in South Africa, race is often the modality through which class is lived.
A recent survey by the Department of Trade and Industry, for instance, found that black university graduates are three times more likely to be jobless than their white counterparts. Another study, conducted by the Cape Higher Education Consortium, indicates that pathways of employment in South Africa continue to reflect apartheid-era patterns of discrimination.
Being white in South Africa, then, is still a fairly good guarantee of private-sector employment. And for black South Africans, access to the lecture halls of the country’s top universities doesn’t automatically translate into employment or an escape from poverty. South Africa has the third highest youth jobless rate in the world, the contours of which still correspond to the racial and spatial ordering of apartheid. (Factoring in discouraged job seekers who are not actively looking for work, the country’s youth unemployment rate hovers around 60 percent.)
Meanwhile, job shedding in sectors like mining and agriculture, and sluggish growth in manufacturing, has been accompanied by the expansion of sectors like finance, insurance, and real estate — those hallmarks of neoliberal economic prosperity. This has fueled demand for highly educated and skilled workers.
In the face of pricey tuition, families have responded by borrowing to finance their children’s education. Over the past two decades aggregate household debt has increased significantly as a result, particularly among the black middle class. Just from 2002 to 2008, South Africa’s household debt rose from 52 percent of income to 83 percent. Today, even after the economic crash, household debt still accounts for three quarters of South Africans’ disposable income. And a 2012–13 report found that the country’s residents carried around $140 billion (USD) worth of personal debt.
On top of high rates of debt, unemployment, and low wages, service delivery to poor and working-class communities is so lackluster it’s sparked an upsurge in community-level demonstrations that target local councilors and politicians. In 2014–15 South African police responded to 14,740 service delivery protests — 2,289 of which were violent — more than double the number of protests in 2007–8.
Unemployed youth have, unsurprisingly, taken center stage in these movements.
Service-delivery struggles and protests by students are more than episodic outbursts of anger against the state. They speak to a wider crisis of political legitimacy, as poor and working-class communities question the parties and organizations that claim to represent them, and increasingly articulate their demands outside of official channels.
The massacre of thirty-four mine workers by the South African Police at Marikana is a case in point. Workers abandoned their union after it not only failed to represent them but attacked them for daring to challenge its legitimacy. By forsaking their union, these workers also distanced themselves from the ruling party and its alliance with the trade union federation COSATU and the South African Communist Party. For challenging these institutions and the power of mining capital, they paid the ultimate price.
Though it hasn’t turned lethal, the ruling party’s response to the student movement has also been strident. While the president met with official student representatives (many of whom are aligned with the ruling party), it has accused other students of being ideologically and financial supported by a shadowy “third force.”
The movement’s fight for affordable education in South Africa is intricately connected to a broader set of struggles aimed at decommodifying other facets of social life. Drawing on the organizational forms of the liberation movement while simultaneously creating new ones, they view their struggle for affordable education as part of a larger fight to undo the economic violence of apartheid still being meted out in the neoliberal present.
Indeed, those born in the twilight years of apartheid or raised after 1994 have increasingly come to question the degree to which apartheid actually ended. Many of them view discourses of reconciliation and rainbow nationhood as myths, propagated by their parents’ generation to distract from the lack of substantive economic and social transformation.
This cascade of protest, among students and the poor, continues to erode the ANC’s hegemonic position. Yet in the absence of a credible and mobilized political alternative — and, it should be said, there are some stirrings of emerging formations — the ruling party is able to simply deflect or repress opposition.
Still, it is essential that youthful anger be taken seriously rather than dismissed or treated in a functionalist manner. The legacy of past mistakes is borne by those youths who fought pitched street battles against apartheid forces in the 1980s, only to find themselves beset by high levels of poverty and unemployment after 1994.
What’s lacking in South Africa is not critical consciousness or anger. That exists in abundance. What is needed is a political direction for this anger that connects the struggle against tuition fees to everyday struggles for survival occurring in the country’s most impoverished communities.
As Fanon said, it is the duty of each generation to discover its historic mission, and fulfill or betray it. South Africa cannot afford more betrayal.