photo credit: Andrew Soglo

2015: South Africa’s Year of The Student?

It’s that time of the year where reflections and resolutions begin to dominate our news feeds. If there’s one thing that can’t be contested, it’s that when students around South Africa reflect on this year, a collective recollection of revolution will certainly trend. As young people, in South Africa and the world over, we’re constantly hearing rhetoric which stereotypes us as lazy, apathetic and uninterested in anything that doesn’t involve data and alcohol. A series of global events served to dead that myth, hopefully once and for all.

In other parts of the world, we saw the occupation of white-dominated spaces by strong, young, black voices, demanding an end to practices which sought to exclude them. In the face of grave danger, like at the University of Missouri, students rallied together to stand against a racially divided society. Back at home, earlier this year, a group of students at the University of Cape Town dared to challenge the legitimacy of a colonial era statue. This triggered a domino effect, with demonstrations against racist tertiary education systems setting off sequentially across the nation.

Although discussions on race aren’t new to South Africa, movements like Rhodes Must Fall and Open Stellenbosch articulated a new radicalism which was difficult to ignore. Race politics are a constant topic of discussion at institutions of higher learning but these movements managed to turn discussions into something more meaningful, and so began the birth of Azania House at the University of Cape Town, Solomon Mahlangu House at the University of the Witwatersrand, Winnie Mandela House at the University of Stellenbosch and Amina Cachilia House at the University Currently Known As Rhodes. Fast-forward a few months and the blockbuster-worthy #FeesMustFall protests took the country by storm. Demonstrations at the University of the Witwatersrand against inexplicably high university fees began a wave of protest action which even reached universities across the pond. As these protests intensified, no fewer than ten campuses stood shut at any given time. A non-aligned, consensus-led movement brought the country to its knees, proving, finally, that we can chant, party and pass, all at the same time.

In an ideal world, this piece would end here. Whoever reads it will have a sense of renewed hope that the future of the country is safe and in good hands and we could all look to 2016 with a positive lens. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen because though the headlines may tell us that this was the year of the student, in so many ways, it really was not. I was fortunate to have been a part of the #FeesMustFall protests but, as someone whose first year at Wits was in 2010, my experience of the movement was slightly different. As one of the many seasoned trouble-makers at the university, I, along with other activists, had the task of assisting behind the scenes when it was time to strategise and be on the picket lines when it was time to fight – and fight we did! Whilst it would make us feel good to think about the great strides students made this year, these movements pointed out disparities that are difficult to ignore.

For starters, it is problematic that we’ve created a society that can decide that some struggles are more valid than others. Universities like the Tshwane University of Technology protest against fee increments year in and year out and every year, their pleas are ignored. They’re labelled as hooligans and their concerns are brushed aside without a second thought. In contrast, the University of the Witwatersrand had students show up for a protest for one day and suddenly the issue becomes breaking news. Media outlets camped out on campus and students were hailed as heroes. Not only did this create divisions between students themselves, but it also pointed out the elitism that exists, not only on the part of the media, but also on the part of those of us who consume the news.  If a struggle is only legitimate when those who occupy spaces of privilege rise up, then even the liberation movement should have been ignored. We simply can’t condone a society in which people have to occupy privilege in order to be heard.

The second thing these movements brought to the fore is the idea that we live in a country which normalises violence. During #FeesMustFall, when we marched to the Union Buildings, I was in a group of people who hid behind a car because police were shooting at students from every direction. A police van found us, parked next to the car we hid behind, and shot at us. A journalist lay with her arms spread out, telling them who she was and begged for them to not shoot. They still shot at her. Students who lived in residences at the University of the Western Cape had police hunt them down and shoot them in the places which should have protected them. Yet, a few weeks later, those same police were praised for the way they handled the protests. If using live ammunition to shoot at people who cry out because their poverty trumps their ambition is seen as handling a situation well, just thinking about the future we’re creating truly frightens me.

However, all hope isn’t lost. Although sexism within movements strangled us, although the ugly face of racism danced around as people got shot, all hope isn’t lost. If anything, this year has shown that when pushed to their limits, people, no matter how young, will rise up against a system which chokes them. Students of South Africa understand the importance of being able to articulate themselves in a world which constantly undermines them. We’ve learned how the same people who call you barbaric today will call you a revolutionary tomorrow but that the only people who can legitimise a struggle are not those who write about it, but those who rally together in support of it. And so, although young people of this country find themselves in a precarious position come 2016, let it also be the year that the comparisons to the 1976 generation are stopped. Students in 2015 have forged their own identities. Allow it to flourish.

Pearl Pillay is the director of Youth Lab, and is listed amongst the Mail and Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans 2015. Tweet her @PearlPillay

Photo credit: Andrew Soglo

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