There has been a breakdown of trust in South Africa’s higher education sector. Student protesters and, at some universities, university employees including cleaners and gardeners, organised themselves under the banner of #FeesMustFall in 2015 and have continued this movement into 2016.
Some universities have responded by employing private security companies. Vice chancellors have defended this action. They say they have a responsibility to keep students, staff and property safe from violent protesters. Placing a strong security presence in riot gear on various parts of a campus sends a clear message of dominant control to protesting students and staff.
There have been many attempts to understand the conflict and strategise a way forward. I would argue that a feminist approach is helpful, more transformative and more inclusive than those currently being used.
A feminist lens in this case emphasises interconnectedness and intersectionality. It argues that workers’ rights, a more diverse teaching body and a decolonised curriculum are all part of making the university a relevant public good in current South Africa.
This lens also notices that there are substantive differences of experience within the categories of student, worker, management and state. These differences are based on race, class, gender, sexual orientation and other factors.
This has been demonstrated by the activities of one arm of the #FeesMustFall movement, which I will explore in this article. Their actions and engagement with university managers offer a possible way to think about the next few months.
A case study
At its core, the #FeesMustFall movement focuses on how various aspects of any university are interconnected: budget, labour, curriculum, student access. It also concentrates on the intersection of oppression in terms of race, class, gender, sexual orientation and religion.
At what some are calling “the university currently known as Rhodes”, members of the Black Students Movement started protesting in March 2015. For this arm of the #FeesMustFall movement, the fight for social justice has rallying points of student accommodation, or fees. But it also seeks to alter multiple sources and symptoms of structural oppression within the university.
It follows the injunction that “the mission of gender equality and social justice is infused into every job, every activity and every location”.
They not only spoke up around accommodation issues, but also contributed to a conference and conversation about decolonising the curriculum. Over the months they met with black academics and support staff. They held regular meetings to discuss concerns, inform themselves, and develop a holistic and responsive strategy. As it developed into what became the #FeesMustFall movement, it was clear that it was strongly influenced by black feminist principles.
Like the #FeesMustFall movements across the country, feminist theories are not homogenous. Leading South African academic Pumla Gqola, for instance, defines feminism as a way to dismantle patriarchy. Patriarchy, she says, positions women as docile and as objects. It positions men as dominant, aggressive, violent and holding the associated assumptions of superiority. The work of feminism, then, is to liberate people from these positions. This will humanise them and bring about equality.
Equality is a key aspect of the #FeesMustFall movement. At Rhodes, the movement was guided by principles of shared leadership and participation. All voices were included in its meetings.
At one point, Rhodes University Vice Chancellor Sizwe Mabizela sat in a circle with protesters in the street where they had assembled to protest. This gesture defined the terms of engagement. It recognised the distribution of power that is based on race, class, gender and age. Mabizela was taken out of his comfort zone - a symbolic demonstration of the movement’s commitment to feminist principles of equality.
Rhodes was also one of the few universities where, at the height of the protests in October 2015, the vice chancellor actively discouraged the police from entering university premises.
Structural violence is real
Universities’ decision to deploy a heavy security presence represents the patriarchal tendency to essentialise a conflict. Doing this facilitates resolution through control and dominance. It reduces protesters to objects to be arranged or rendered powerless.
But these protesters are legitimately fighting not only for financial inclusion but for equality and justice in terms of the curriculum, language, employment, race, class and gender. Higher education in South Africa has not transformed enough since the country became a democracy in 1994. It has failed to address adequately the pervasive structural violence which is inflicted on groups of essentialised bodies - such as poor, black students, black academics and black contracted workers.
Simplifying the binary of state and capital vs protesters denies the impact of this structural violence. Students sit through years of an education without a black lecturer. They are required to study a western canon. They are judged by their accents and language. They see a bureaucracy miming “transformation” without it making a substantive difference to the lives of promising but poor black people. They have not been taken seriously enough.
There is no easy solution. But if patriarchy is to be dismantled, it would need to start with rethinking the security presence. It would require all sides to truly listen to each other as equals in order to negotiate a satisfactory timeline for demands to be met. This would be in keeping with author and theorist bell hooks’ assertion that:
Radical visionary feminism encourages all of us to courageously examine our lives from the standpoint of gender, race, and class so that we can accurately understand our position within the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.