University students are becoming a new kind of democratic citizen

21 years into democracy, are South Africa’s university students showing other citizens how best to hold the state accountable? EPA/Ihsaan Haffejee

If one tracks South African student activities in 2015 it becomes apparent that a new politics is bubbling below the surface of academic life. This first emerged with the #RhodesMustFall and #OpenStellenbosch protests, followed more recently by #FeesMustFall. The underlying issues driving this movement are about citizenship, belonging, inclusion and exclusion.

A ‘new’ politics

As a new democracy dawned in South Africa, universities were tasked with a very specific social responsibility: the creation of a critical and democratic citizen.

Democratic citizenship entails exercising your right with due consideration for the rights of others. It involves holding the state accountable for its action or non-action and making political choices that advance social justice.

South Africans have experienced moments of immense civic pride in 2015. Students of all religions, races, genders and creeds formed a unified front. They held the state accountable under the banner of #feesmustfall and #nationalshutdown. When the state ignored them, they took their grievances to parliament, where the country’s policies are made, and to the Union Buildings, the seat of the country’s executive.

The message was clear: we will be heard.

Students have shown the potential of mass mobilisation to influence policy in advancing justice for their constitutional democratic rights. They also held the state accountable for the promise of free higher education. They spoke of a non-partisan movement that brought students together regardless of political party affiliations.

This was reminiscent of the May 1968 student revolts that brought France to its knees. Historian Richard Wolin has called the French student movement’s approach a:

… new way of thinking about politics; an approach that abandoned the goal of seizing political power and instead sought to initiate a democratic revolution in moves, habits, sexuality, gender roles and human solidarity in general.

Recreating citizenship after apartheid

South African students appear to be in the midst of their own cultural revolution. As with students in Paris in 1968, they are trying to advance a debate about recreating culture and citizenship to fit the post-apartheid citizen.

Students are often seen as the custodians of the future. They can be catalysts for regenerating and changing society. There are many examples in history where students have challenged authoritarianism, contested societal and policy change, and recreated societies, including South Africa’s own democratic struggle.

In May 1968 Paris’ streets burned. Under the banner of Liberte! Egalite! and Sexualite!, they called for educational reform and the right to have visitors of the opposite sex in dorms. On May 13 workers joined forces with students against what they saw as oppressive capitalism and called for improved working conditions.

Context matters. The 1960s was a period of resistance and revolt against values of the old as people demanded social justice and equality. This was at the time of the hippy movement and protests against the Vietnam War, the rise of the Civil Rights and Feminist movements, Cordobazo in Argentina, and the Prague Spring in the former Czechoslovakia, among others.

These revolutions and protests symbolised a meeting of the cultural with the political, where people demanded their right to social justice. It’s a cultural rebirth, if you will, where a generation can no longer identify with the ways of the old and seeks instead to create a new form of citizenship.

A cursory glance at the rhetoric of #Rhodesmustfall and #OpenStellenbosch reveals a strong desire for a similar change. Key to the rhetoric is a desire for transformation – in South Africa this refers to efforts to redress imbalances created during apartheid – for decolonisation and for recreating university spaces. Both campaigns embraced a narrative of change.

A new conversation

Some people have suggested that these and the subsequent #feesmustfall protests sprang from unhappiness about universities’ overwhelmingly white teaching bodies.

But the narrative that characterised the campaigns shows we are not necessarily only looking at transformation as a “game of numbers”. It is a call to rethink university spaces, the knowledge that is transferred and its broader impact on society through access and cost.

The narrative of #Rhodesmustfall and #OpenStellenbosch brought to the fore a call for claiming a more African philosophical thinking, of deepening democracy through decolonising and transforming institutions of higher learning. This is linked to the idea of the complete decolonisation of society – mind, attitude and ideology.

The protests showed that students are taking up the difficult questions around citizenship and belonging for a deepening of democracy. They also showed that students can unite in solidarity around key issues, like exorbitant university fees that further entrench old patterns of exclusion.

South Africa’s students have started a conversation contesting belonging, inclusion and citizenship after apartheid. This story is not necessarily about gaining political power. It’s about a deepening democratisation in South African university spaces.

Two questions remain: will these movements gain momentum? With time, will students participate more strongly in formal political processes like elections?

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