In 2015, A CLUSTER OF NEW STUDENT ACTIVIST GROUPS emerged at South African universities. Their initial names differed across campuses, reflecting the institutional particularities of their concerns. While the language of tuition was the principal focus of groups at Stellenbosch and the University of Pretoria, catalysts for mobilization elsewhere included student housing shortages and the presence of colonial iconography. By late 2015, through campaigns to establish unity of purpose, student movements mobilized behind a common demand: free higher education. The name attributed to the movement, “Fees Must Fall”, captured this commitment. For the first time in the post-apartheid era, students marched on campuses, to Parliament, and to the seat of government in Pretoria, to protest against the rising cost of university fees.
Between 1994 and 2011, the number of students enrolled in higher education in South Africa almost doubled, increasing from 495,356 to 938,201.1 However, state funding for higher education as a component of total university income decreased from 49 percent in 2000 to 40 percent in 2012.2 Universities sought to make up the budget shortfall through private fundraising, but during this time the contribution of student fees to total university income increased from 24 percent to 31 percent. In the third decade of South African democracy and under a constitutional order that guaranteed the right ‘to further education, which the state through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible’, higher education became more expensive for students and their families.3 The Fees Must Fall movement conveyed popular, collective frustration with these rising costs, but students’ anger was directed not solely at government. The state's failings to serve the needs of its polity and to drive an agenda of democratic redress were ascribed also to the academy.4 Universities came to exemplify the failure of “transformation” and the lasting legacy of institutional racism and Eurocentrism.5
This briefing is based on my experiences of teaching and research on five campuses: the Universities of Cape Town, Fort Hare, Rhodes, Walter Sisulu, and the Witwatersrand, between March 2015 and October 2016. Students and staff members at South African universities have participated in the movement in vastly different ways. The diversity of these experiences unsettles the unitary framing of the “academy”.6 My observations are based on public gatherings, and interviews and discussions with university staff, students, and their families.
By late 2016, whether seeking to participate actively and sympathetically, or not, all students and staff in the South African academy were part of the Fees Must Fall movement, in the sense that all had been affected by it. Their studies and employment had been influenced by protest actions and by institutional responses. Because of its contemporaneity, current accounts of the movement offer only momentary glimpses, rendered rapidly outdated through perpetual shifts in advocacy strategies and the responses of university and government actors. This pace of change makes Fees Must Fall an ever-moving target, eluding sustained characterization and analysis. Yet, in part because of its location on campuses and in part because of its concerns with the politics of knowledge production, Fees Must Fall is the subject of acute academic interest and a rapidly growing literature. This briefing focuses on its origin and evolution, exploring how questions about Fees Must Fall may animate future analyses. How did the movement emerge? What forms of media and mobilization did it use? How may it be understood as a collective, rather than a cluster of individual groups? Finally, what is meant by the term ‘Fallism’ as an ideology or praxis?
In considering the origins of Fees Must Fall, scholars confront one of the most heavily disputed questions in the Humanities: the relative power of agents and structures. Should accounts of its emergence focus more on individuals or on collective processes and circumstances? Related to this is the challenge of identifying and addressing the nature of partisanship. Based on their own affinities with the movement, and access to participants, scholars may abandon aspirations of critical detachment, deciding instead that the only course is a retreat into subjectivity.
The movement has grown and changed rapidly over the course of its short lifespan, with certain key events, and their retelling, becoming part of its mythos. The movement's birth is often ascribed to the actions of an individual: Chumani Maxwele's protest against the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town on 9 March 2015.7 On this date, Maxwele threw excrement at the statue. His actions were understood widely as vaulting a new threshold in student activism, but this interpretation is based on at least two assumptions. The first is the identification of ‘students’ as a discrete public within South Africa's history of popular protest. The second is the novelty of the protest medium: human waste. How might understandings of Maxwele's action be altered if these two assumptions were challenged? The protest, attributed often as the key catalyst in the movement's emergence, may be understood as part of a broader pattern of civic action, pursuing new lines while echoing older forms. In what anthropologist Steven Robins has dubbed ‘poo politics’, human waste has been a fertile medium of protest in present-day South Africa.8 Maxwele's actions against the Rhodes statue held much in common with the protests of the Ses'khona People's Rights Movement: to confront and incite the public through an assault on the senses.9 Protests sought to transform the institutions and monuments they reviled, from sites of commemoration, to sources of abhorrence.
Exploring the connections between Maxwele's actions and those of other protesters could inspire a broader understanding of the collective actions and processes that led to the emergence of Fees Must Fall. Focusing specifically on campus-based student activism, a new set of questions arises that challenges the teleological lure of social movement historiography. The Rhodes statue has been a target for student action since at least the 1980s.10 A longer chronological perspective reveals the continuity in student protests against colonial symbols.
Fees Must Fall and the social media
Developments in communication technologies over the last four decades have influenced the workings of civic organizations in South Africa, opening new avenues for information sharing.11 The global reach of the anti-apartheid movement, among South Africa's most powerful civic formations, was extended through the mass media.12 In accounts of Fees Must Fall, scholars have identified social media as central to the movement's emergence and functioning.13 Studies of popular movements in the twenty-first century, including the Occupy movement and the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, highlight the power of social media.14 Questions about the current role of communication technologies, in particular smart phones and social media websites, may further our understanding of the power and the limits of social media for civic mobilization. The use of smart phones to share information quickly and to mobilize particular actions explains in part why Fees Must Fall emerged when it did. Facebook, Twitter, and Whatsapp stoked the movement's viral momentum, but they may also have checked its ability to establish transparent and accountable structures of authority and leadership. While enabling certain forms of participation, they may have limited others.
The online presence of Fees Must Fall pitched the movement into a public confrontation. It gave representational force to the group's own collective sense of itself, establishing its principles, consolidating its aims, and asserting these in conversation with an online ‘commentariat’. Social media allows for the rapid, real-time sharing of online content, including photos and videos. This ‘hyperkinesis’ helps to convey a sense of rapid organization and escalation, fostering notions of immediacy and urgency that in turn play a foundational role for many social movements.15
The various, incipient names of the movement revealed its ready use of social media as a platform for collective mobilization. Through prefacing these names with hashtags, participants built ‘feeds’ that allowed others to comment on, and share, online posts. How did online content nourish ideas and identities central to the movement's emergence, building the discursive parameters of new solidarities? Hashtags are a powerful way of compacting messages and rendering them contemporary and collective.
In their inception, social movements often rely on the language of their predecessors, situating their struggles within established discursive frameworks to inspire public recognition and identification.16 Through its use and adaptation of particular slogans, songs, and gestures, Fees Must Fall invoked the iconography of the anti-apartheid resistance movement. The discursive and symbolic repertoires of the anti-apartheid struggle provided a ready resource base for collective identification.
Fees Must Fall emerged as a national movement because of its successes in the mobilization of mass numbers of students simultaneously, across various locations. This mass mobilization was enabled through its association with past protest action, as well as its self-definition as something novel, led by a new generation of student activists and leaders. Its framing within the mold of the anti-apartheid resistance movement was evident in slogans such as ‘Unfinished business’ and ‘We are not done yet’. Its self-depiction as ‘the new struggle’ avowed a historical link between the objectives of the past and present student activism. But the movement also promised a new reckoning with the structures of power and oppression.
Violence and representation within Fees Must Fall
The corporality of Fees Must Fall actions, including the energy and physicality of its protest actions, provides another ready source of scholarly engagement. Much attention has been focused on the weapons and protest props, such as sjamboks, that featured at protests. These were mainly carried by men but also by women on occasion, such as in a confrontation between Fees Must Fall leaders and trans activists at Wits campus on 4 April 2016.17 The clothing worn by the most visible of the movement leaders, those at center stage of its protest actions and tagged persistently in its Facebook feeds, referenced the pop culture of revolutionaries. A reverence for militarism appears in the combat gear, army fatigues, and berets worn by a number of the protestors.
Accusations of chauvinism were present from the movement's inception, and gained momentum in the aftermath of reports of sexual violence and rape within the student movement itself.18 In a series of public actions in 2016, queer activists and gender activists challenged the patriarchy and heteronormativity of key figures within Fees Must Fall, including Maxwele, accusing them of tokenism and violence. At an exhibition commemorating the first anniversary of Fees Must Fall, the UCT Trans Collective smeared red paint over photographs and physically blocked the entrance to the exhibition hall. Public opposition to misogyny, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry related to gender and sexuality inspired activist mobilization and protests on other university campuses, such as the wave of protests at Rhodes University in April 2016. Here, students occupied campus properties, confronted accused rapists, and excoriated the university management for perpetuating rape culture. They in turn inspired demonstrations of support and solidarity at other campuses, in which activists removed their clothes as a brazen challenge to presumptions of bodily integrity and proscriptions of feminine modesty.
One of the discursive strategies of the Fees Must Fall movement was to expand the intellectual frames of violence and oppression to include symbolic, structural, and epistemic forms (discussed further below). A focus on violence at UCT suggests an arc, beginning with protests against the Rhodes statue (an inert but symbolically powerful artifact) gaining rapid ground with the petrol-bombing of Max Price's office (as UCT's vice-chancellor, a “living embodiment” of university authority),19 and peaking with the explosion of a nail bomb at a central campus meeting ground and threats to the university crèche (“indiscriminate” targeting of staff, students, and their families).20 The photograph in Figure 1 shows the debris of an explosion set-off by student protestors at the center of the University of Cape Town's Jamieson Plaza on 7 October 2016.
When the movement's theaters of violence are expanded, away from the floodlit settings of UCT and Wits, the narrative arc strains and its chronology collapses. Future research must question why protests and disruptions at universities designated for whites during the apartheid era captivated the public, while the severity of violence, until early 2016, was greater at historically black institutions.21 At the University of Fort Hare, for instance, violence against the “general campus community”, including students and staff, reveals an earlier turn towards threats, intimidation, and humiliation against student “bystanders” and their families.22 Students were forced out of university residences and coerced into joining violent protests at Fort Hare's Alice campus as early as November 2015. A parent recounted: ‘The violence is getting worse and worse every day. They started off with some protests, burning tires. Now they have stolen the computers, now they are burning down buildings, stealing cars and looting. No one can leave.’23 The sense that the student protests were inescapable, that all were engulfed in its violent actions and consequences, deepened as the movement aged.
Various authors have questioned the use of violence within Fees Must Fall,24 but in-depth analyses are lacking. As the movement evolved, its justification of violence and the definitions of its targets expanded. Certain forms of violence seem increasingly widespread within Fees Must Fall protests, but physical violence and hate speech were present within the movement from its inception. Recognizing the strategic use of violence reveals how emancipatory civic action may permit or even enhance forms of brutality. While it has self-avowedly sought to fight oppression and injustice, the movement's strategic use of violence as a tool of punishment, humiliation, and control reveals how it replicated forms of violent sociality. Through analysing the use of violence by Fees Must Fall activists, as well as police and private guards called in to secure campuses, the movement may be understood not merely as a response to, but a conduit for, violence in South Africa.
Fees Must Fall was always inchoate, but it was able to present a claim to be a cohesive ideological unit. Contestations over violence shook the foundations of this tenuous solidarity. Critical engagement with the power of violence and intimidation challenges us to think more carefully about the definitive role of violence in South African society, including within Fees Must Fall. Within a movement that was avowedly acephalous, how may the actions of particular individuals be regarded as representative?
Many accounts of Fees Must Fall rely on generalizations about “the students” or “the universities”. If contestation among participants seem absent from these accounts, they were evident on social media and at public actions. Disputes over who held the loudhailer were also struggles over whose voices were amplified and whose were silenced. Adam Habib's account of the student movement, published in early 2016, noted the broad base of its organization, crossing the lines of class, race, and political affiliation.25 The potential for political partisanship and co-optation was present from its inception.26 As its size and power grew, interest groups vied for greater control of the movement, seeking to funnel its demands in a particular direction.
The ordering of the movement's collective priorities led inevitably to their hierarchical ranking. As the Fees Must Fall movement evolved, race subsumed gender, class, and sexuality as the definitive marker of oppression. The focus on race revealed the creep of “vertical prioritization” within a movement that was avowedly “intersectional”. This is perhaps the movement's central challenge: to reconcile intersectional and solitarist understandings of power and oppression.27
Many accounts of the student movement rely on unitary framings, but critical analysis may begin to deconstruct popular orthodoxies about Fees Must Fall, including, perhaps, its denotation as a “social movement”. How have unitary framings of “the movement”, “the students”, or “the academy” serviced convenient fictions? In what sense are they useful and applicable, and in what sense reductive? The term “Fallism” has been used to identify the commonalities in the movement's political philosophy, helping to capture some of its more explicit goals, such as the removal of the Rhodes statue from the University of Cape Town's campus. The commitment to a triumvirate of founding principles—Black Consciousness, Pan-Africanism, and intersectionality—helped to forge activist alliances. Later, this ideological merger seemed to disintegrate, as queer feminists within the movement alleged that a focus on race and class had superseded concerns with gender and sexuality as forms of oppression. A Facebook posting by the UCT Trans Collective criticized ‘a rigid loyalty to patriarchy, cisnormativity, heteronormativity and the gender binary’ within Rhodes Must Fall, and railed against the ‘violence that had infiltrated the decolonial project’.28
While the attribution of “Fallism” as a label may paper over many of the cracks, the term does reveal a powerful, unifying force within the movement: its hankering for the fall of an old era and the birth of a new one. The actions, speeches, and writings of many Rhodes Must Fall leaders were infused with millenarian hopes: they sought to extirpate the injustices of the past and present in the service of future “transformation”. It is this longing to defamiliarize the progression of history, to reveal the persistence of the past in the present, that marks monuments as sites of protest. Through actions involving statues, paintings, and buildings, the artifacts and edifices of memorialization, protestors refute the protective estrangement of the past, rendering its symbols live, present, and productive.
Through invoking its own contemporaneity, the movement may have fortified its sense of uniqueness. But what conceptual difficulties might this pose? How, for instance, does the movement's understanding of its own novelty cohere with its reliance on the anti-apartheid resistance as its key ideological precursor? How might the key achievement of the anti-apartheid struggle and its leaders—including South Africa's transition to democracy and the political leadership of Nelson Mandela—be revised?
A rich academic literature questions the significance of South Africa's political transition.29 Through examining the successes and the limits of participatory democracy, and the effects of socio-economic redress since 1994, scholars have challenged the distinction between the ‘apartheid’ and ‘post-apartheid’ eras. Some have characterized the period of transition not as a moment of miraculous transformation but as a feat of elite engineering, in which the socio-economic structures of apartheid were left intact.30 While these lines of argument did not start from Fees Must Fall, they flourished within the speeches, writings, and protest actions of its participants. Calls for revisionism are perhaps nowhere more apparent than in critiques of Nelson Mandela.31 Allegations that Mandela was a sell-out and a traitor present a revealing riposte to his erstwhile “untouchability”. Multiracialism, constitutionalism, and reconciliation have all been described as features of the “post-apartheid” mirage. This is, perhaps, why “Fallism” resonates as it does, denoting an exit from the political Eden of the democratic transition, in which Mandela's messianic light not only shone brightly but also blinded.
By October 2016, as the student movement entered an era of unprecedented violence, numerous universities faced the prospects of closure and suspension of the 2016 academic year. Some were exploring online teaching platforms as alternatives to class-based learning, with debates raging over their relative accessibility and pedagogical value. In the aftermath of some of the most powerful protests by post-apartheid civil society, claims that South African scholarship has failed to pursue an emancipatory or transformative agenda assumed a kind of orthodoxy. These claims reveal frustration and anger towards the failure of the post-apartheid state to meet the aspirations of its young citizens, including through the provision of free higher education.32 However, they also risked ignoring the vast fields of critical scholarship that have been developed in South Africa and which have challenged and exposed the political status quo of the past and present.
How can students of Fees Must Fall navigate this intellectual terrain, at the source of so many intersections? Within this early stage in the emergence of academic studies of the movement, one way is to question the emergence of particular orthodoxies within its public life. A second response is to examine why these orthodoxies emerged, and a third is to relate their emergence to broader dynamics within South African society, to discern the continuities between the social movement and its historical predecessor, and to describe its novelty and currency. As a project that aims to decolonize knowledge, Fees Must Fall is an intellectual scion of anticolonial and subaltern studies. The movement's concerns with power asymmetries, and how they are created and sustained within the knowledge economy, are central to contemporary social theory.33 But the movement is also a product of South African academia in the era of democracy, including through its interpretations of equity and redress and its modes of participation and confrontation. It is to the value and meaning of higher learning, both within South Africa and beyond, that scholars of Fees Must Fall must turn.