Fees Must Fall: Lessons from Student Struggles in South Africa

Fees Must Fall: Lessons from Student Struggles in South Africa

South Africa is currently undergoing a resurgence in student protests, with students agitating for free, decolonized education. The most prominent of these movements are Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall. What, exactly, are RMF and FMF? In a nutshell, they are an expression of a deep problem haunting “post-colonial” Africa in general and South Africa in particular. That students must still fight against overt symbols of colonialism and apartheid such as the leading British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes’ statue, as well as for “free education,” speaks to the failure of decolonization and democratization. The best way to comprehend the essence of these struggles, therefore, is to extend the canvas of analysis to the broader existential discursive malaise confronting the modern world where, even in Europe and the United States, students are fighting for free education.

Throughout the rest of the world, the commodification and commercialization of education are among the symbols of enslavers, colonialists and neo-liberals that today are under attack. Taken together, the “must fall” movements are an indictment of a particular Euro–North American–centric civilization that Aime Cesaire correctly described as decadent, sick, dying, and indefensible. [1]

The combined message from the movements is that this is a propitious moment in history for the fall of the “civilisation of death” analyzed by Julia Suarez-Krabbe—a a civilization that systematically and deliberately invented black people as subhumans, available only as cheap labor in a world dominated by racial capitalism.[2] Picking up where the anticolonial activists left off, the students are loudly and openly declaring they are fed up with coloniality. Cecil John Rhodes, the leading British imperialist who not only laid the foundation for apartheid colonialism but had a colonial vision of conquering Africa from the Cape in the south to Cairo in the north, does not only represent colonialism and racism; as clearly articulated by Njabulo Ndebele, he represents “the uncivilised that is buried deeply in the heart of the self-proclaimed civilised.”[3] The uncivilized streak of Europeans was manifest in their use of fire to burn libraries built by others, especially the Muslims during the period described by the leading decolonial theorist Ramon Grosfoguel as ‘the long 16th century.’[4] This ‘long 16th century’ witnessed what Grosfoguel termed the ‘four genocides/epistemicides’ namely:

• The conquest of Al-Andalus
• The extermination of indigenous people of the Americas
• The enslavement of Africans in the Americas
• The killing of millions of women burned alive Europe accused of being witches in relation to knowledge structures.[5]

The point here is that Euro-North American-centric epistemic hegemony was achieved through genocides (killing of non-Europeans); epistemicides (killing and appropriation of knowledges of non-Europeans); linguicides (killing of languages of colonized peoples) and cultural imperialism (imposition of Western culture). Burning of libraries built by Muslims was part of commission of epistemicides. This epistemic violence is not comparable to the current burning of a few libraries by students in South Africa. The decolonial project as a liberatory process does not advocate for the burning of libraries partly because that would amount to repetition of what colonialism did and partly because the project advocates what the leading Portuguese decolonial sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos termed ‘ecologies of knowledges’ as part of transcending Euro-North American-centric epistemic hegemony through democratization of knowledge.[6]

Understood in a broader context the student movements are a reaction to the resilient decivilizing project of apartheid colonialism, which was underpinned by genocides, epistemicides, linguicides, and the imposition and normalization of poverty and inequality. No wonder the “must fall” movements are, at the core, calls for neoapartheid to fall, Eurocentrism to fall, invented heteronormativity to fall, patriarchy to fall, commodified education to fall, corporatized universities to fall, corruption to fall, and so on and so forth. These are subsets of a system we must not analyze in isolation, lest we miss the forest by concentrating on the trees.

We can’t lie to ourselves as governments and universities and say students have not spoken! We must turn our attention to what the leading African decolonial theorist and historian Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni has described as the “rich student archive,” consisting of songs and dances, graffiti, speeches, placards, blogs, media articles, and memoranda.[7] From this archive there is a lot to learn:

• That “fees must fall” is an expression of disappointment with the lack of genuine decolonization and democratization that was supposed to deliver free, high-quality, decolonized and relevant education—an expression that reveals the limits of false promises. These movements, thus, are about an undelivered good. In other countries, such as Zimbabwe and Ghana, attempts were made to deliver education that was ‘Africanized’ but not decolonized. These commendable efforts were not sustained. That the promise of South Africa’s National Development Plan of a knowledge-driven society is an irony in a state that has sold its soul to a neoliberal capitalism opposed to any serious investment in education and the desired knowledge-driven society.
• That “fees must fall” is an eloquent call for the decolonization of South Africa’s national budget. In the United States, the call is to stop war and invest in education. In Zimbabwe, the call is to stop investing in regime security and Mugabeism and invest in education. In South Africa, the call is to end corruption and invest in education.
• That the future cannot be mortgaged to a neoliberal, racial capitalism in which everything is reduced to a commodity, including life itself.

The sum total of the “must fall” discourse is an indication of the dismal failure of decolonization, democratization, and neoliberalism. The “must fall” movements are basically part of Africans’ invention of their own future—one that is free from the entanglement of the global colonial matrices of power.

All those committed, therefore, to the future the students are fighting for must, as an essential prerequisite to being forces of change, liberate themselves from rationality and begin to reason. Rationality operates as a prepackaged and closed thought system that is highly judgmental and fundamentalist. Reason is living thought that is consistently open-ended and empathetic to any understanding of the logic of the current struggles. The modern world needs more reasoning and less rationality because rationality is egocentric, Cartesian, and based on prior thinking and principles. Those who use rationality to explain the burning of libraries, for example, simplistically evoke dry legalism, invented moralism, and liberal constitutionalism to castigate the students and to call them names. In rationality, there is no room to reflect critically on such possibilities as constitutionalization of injustices for instance. Colonial libraries continue to sustain epistemicides. They alienate the students.

Reason seeks to understand the circumstances that lead one to burn a library. Reason is conducive to unthinking some ideas and open to learning to unlearn in order to relearn. Let us reason as part of understanding what is happening around us. If we rationalize, we foreclose reasoning, and we discipline the present into the past. We enclose the future into the present and become complicit in maintaining a status quo of injustice.

The definitive entry of the descendants of enslaved, colonized, dehumanized, and racialized beings into the academy, proclaiming they were born into a valid knowledge system, inevitably enjoins all of us to change the very idea of the university, of epistemology, curriculum, institutional culture, and pedagogy. Fees must fall, and they must fall now and forever remain fallen.

Endnotes

[1] Cesaire, A. 1955. Discourse on Colonialism. New York: Monthly Review Press.

[2] Saurez-Krabbe, J. 2016. Race, Rights and Rebels: Alternatives to Human Rights and Development from the Global South. London & New York: Rowman & Littlefield International.

[3] Refer to the presentation by Professor Njabulo Ndebele delivered at the University of Johannesburg, 18 August 2016.

[4] Grosfoguel, R. 2013. ‘The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities: Epistemic Racism/Sexism and the Four Genocides/Epistemicides of the Long 16th Century.’ Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, XI (1), Fall, pp. 73-90.

[5] Grosfoguel, ‘The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities,’ p. 74.

[6] Santos, B. de S. 2007. ‘Beyond Abyssal Thinking: From Global Lines to Ecologies of Knowledges.’ Review, XXX(1), pp. 45-89.

[7] Ndlovu-Gatsheni, S. J. ‘Why Are South African Universities Sites of Struggle Today?’ The Thinker: A Pan-African Quarterly for Thought Leaders, 4 (70), pp. 52-61.

 

 

About the Author

Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni
is the Director of Scholarship in the Change Management Unit(CMU) at the University of South Africa. His two latest major publications are The Decolonial Mandela: Peace, Justice and the Politics of Life (Oxford& New York, 2016) and Decolonizing the University, Knowledge Systems and Disciplines in Africa (Durham,NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2016).
Everisto Benyera
is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of South Africa and a founding member of Africa Decolonial Research Network (ADERN).

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