Book Review: The Road of Democracy in SA Volume 7 – Soweto Uprisings: New Perspectives, Commemorations and Memorialization.

By Khanya Bonani

This book is a reflection of not only the events leading to June 16th, 1976. It unpacks the months of passive resistance and mobilization made against the Afrikaans language policy in Bantu Education from 1972. It illustrates a contribution to the liberation struggle of a generation of youth that banded together under the banner of student movements – the progressive and liberal movements.

However, in the account given of youth within the movement, the youth were not led by these liberation movements but rather the underpinnings of the classroom environment and localized struggles within Bantu Education. It goes a step further and outlines the legacy of language policies dating back to the Union of South Africa. This illustrates not only the use of language as a monopoly to embed nationalist power within educational institutions but also the paradox that lies in how a native language is used as an instrument of power to systematically disenfranchise a large section of the population.

This book also addresses Memorialization and answers the long overdue question of representation. One such reflection is the question with regards to the Hector Pieterson Memorial. Another is the reflection on the representation of girls in the June 16th, 1976 narrative. In another chapter, the author takes time to map out the geographical significance of protest beyond Soweto while another is a reflection on our understanding of youth and the legacy of categorization as a reflexive construct.

This review is an attempt at drawing parallels between the generations of 1960s, 1970s as captured in the book, with 2015 #FessMustFall youth and student Movements. In this analysis, I look at the contested areas within and amongst the three generations: international solidarity (+ black excellence), gender and representation, historical consciousness, mobilization, teaching and institutional legacy.

International solidarity has been a pivotal part of the student movements over the generations. At the center of the mobilization for each generation has been the notion of education as a tool of establishing a base to empower the youth at each Era, informed by the contextual issues of the day. However, the formation of these modes of solidarity reflect divergent strategies in mobilizing their positionality to outline structural inequities in education and society.

The 1970s generation relied heavily on the student organizations to mobilize schools across Soweto and the Northern Transvaal. For this generation, solidarity meant bringing together localized struggles and creating awareness of not only student discontent but the classroom environment as a result of the language policy. The 1950s generation went into exile to highlight the atrocities of the Apartheid system and built the solidarity networks in the international community to place pressure on the Apartheid government. Solidarity for this generation meant using their positionality within institutions of higher learning, as well as later political institutions, to politicize the ongoing human rights violations and the systematic injustice within South Africa.

However, The #FeesMustFall generation were somewhat different in their approach. At the start of their protests, it was international student groupings and South African expats that supported the critical responses to the grievances of their time, without prompting. Within the premise of the protests, international students went on to critique the institutional practices of not only tuition but also the curriculum, the symbols that represent these institutions (#RhodesMustFall) and the names of their own institutions. Protests, marches and press statements of solidarity highlighted not only how local students were having an impact with regards to questioning the university as a public good.

This generation set a national conversation around the structural inequality that exists within institutions in South Africa, showing the legacy of language policy within the public education sector (basic + higher education), proposing fiscal alternatives and challenging leadership on political ideology. Despite the overarching global trend of high university tuition being on the table, the #FeesMustFall generation garnered solidarity without relying on political associations. The mobilization of these groupings, nurtured subsequent interactions amongst this generation in the following years and inspired the knowledge exchange which has been carried out through various platforms – seminars, colloquia, social media etc. The continued engagements between University Oxford based #RhodesMustFall and the #FeesMustFall at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, amongst others, provide a perfect example.

Despite critics seeing the new generation of international student expats emanating from the Fees Must Fall leaders as sell-outs, black excellence is not measured by the attainment of Rhodes Scholarships and access to renowned institutions. In this new generation of youth leaders, it has shown that its measure of black excellence lies in questioning the selective narratives within representation of history and decolonizing the curriculum, even within traditional societies. The impact of the South African contingent during the Oxford #RhodesMustFall movement illustrated the importance of using positionality to disrupt toxic institutional culture and unlearning generally accepted paradigms in a university context.

The next contested area is around historical and political consciousness. The #FeesMustFall generation is often accused of lacking political clarity and conscious. The 1950s and 1970s generations, under the auspices of the liberation movement, were motivated by the systematic injustice of the Apartheid and the Colonial Era. However, what these two generations tend to overlook is the importance of dealing with ideological difference and dissonance under the political badge. In the book SADET Volume 7 highlights the important fact that the 1976 student uprisings caught the dominant liberation movements by surprise.

Just as the ANC and BCM had different approaches in political commemorations of the day’s events then, the legacy of this dissonance still plays out today in the various activities taking place during what is called Youth Month.

Unlike their predecessors, the #FeesMustFall generation did not mobilize under the auspices of a singular political ideology. This generation mobilized under three major issues: fees, ballooning structural inequality and the inaction of the governing party to deliver on the promises of the Freedom Charter. Despite the policy being from a liberation movement, it soon became clear that the “Fallist movement” had become disillusioned by the ANC, especially after the proposal for Free Education, presented by Prof. Schwartz, was shelved in 2012. This disillusionment was also reinforced by higher education institutions raising tuition fees way above inflation, even at times when government subsidies were sufficient to cover costs.

The mobilization continued to build on the critique of the memorialization of symbols within South African history, such as Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town. In this critique, the mobilization of the students was around the oppressive nature of these symbols, represented by institutional culture and the lack of access to these institutions that is defined along the colour line. The Rhodes statue, former erected at the UCT middle campus, was facing the rest of Cape Town where one could see the view of informal settlements and townships – a symbol of the unchanged pre-1994 structural inequalities. A growing trend on the African continent, this generation of youth have been mobilizing outside of political ideology in order to enforce social change, with immense impact.

The previous generations demonstrated that representation is a key component in mobilizing society. This was seen through the banning of political parties and liberation movements during Apartheid Era. Stalwarts of the struggle during the 1950s represented the exile contingent that went about building the international network that would assist the localized struggle in the 1970s and 1980s.

However, the shortfall of this argument lies in the lack of representation of women in the historical account of their respective generation. The erasure of women in South African history has rendered their role in selective narratives as either antagonistic, as in the likes of Winnie Madikizela Mandela or symbolic figureheads for auxiliary celebrations within political parties, like the Albertina Sisulu Centenary. These generations fail to understand the significance of telling our stories and unpacking their impact beyond the Women’s March on 9th August 1956.

In the #FeesMustFall generation, there are more women represented within the movement. Their stories and impact have been memorialized in literature and academia. However, this generation has yet to also deal with its own challenges. The #FeesMustFall movement was not entirely inclusive with regards to LGBTI community, international students and challenging institutional xenophobia, addressing patriarchy and rape culture on campuses.

The most recent mobilization on university campuses has been around the repugnant phenomenon of rape and assault of female students, with the RU Reference List protests. These protests critiqued the current policies within institutions which perpetuates rape culture and violence against women on campus and further demanded immediate action to be taken against perpetrators. These protests resulted in students being excluded indefinitely in disciplinary hearings behind closed doors. Whilst institutions are reviewing and amending their sexual assault policies, political parties still remain silent on patriarchy, gender-based violence, assault and rape culture within their own structures.

In light of the #FeesMustFall generation gaining its media coverage through former white universities (Rhodes, WITS, UCT), the localized struggles within the Higher Education sector truly started in the former black universities (Fort Hare, UKZN, UWC). However, students in the FET sector, who are by and large ignored by media, continue to face similar challenges.

As the #FeesMustFall movement disappears from the national discourse, there is still a collective of students that are still battling against higher education institutions. Some of them have been excluded from their institutions indefinitely. Some students still face court cases while others are stranded in prisons. Our generation has seemingly overlooked the importance of the localized struggle. Despite the implementation of Free Higher Education in January 2018, this act was out of political desperation rather than political will.

The #FeesMustFall movement would do well to devise measures to maintain its momentum, in order to ensure lasting changes in the public education system. Many students in higher education institutions remain out of the system due to historical debt while the administration of NSFAS still leaves much to be desired.

*Bonani runs a Research Consultancy based in Johannesburg. She is also part of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation Youth Hub.



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