How the South African students movement was silenced

The campus with its white buildings and neat lawns is gated, in some places with barbed wire and Koketso walks around in it hesitatingly, as if she herself doesn’t understand yet why they let her in. Her T-shirt, skirt and gym shoes are low-cost as is her short cropped hair. When an older student calls her, she dutifully approaches. She is waiting for the bursary. If it doesn’t come, she’ll leave and “sit at home.”

Another new comer, Gontsi, is here thanks to her mum, who has paid in almost her whole salary towards Gontsi’s first month of studies. Will she manage for three years? “We’ll try. It’s just that Afrikaans that they like here,” she sighs. “I battle with that.”

The University of Pretoria is a traditionally good quality university which, like all good quality places in this country, is expensive and white. Most resources are still directed to Afrikaans classes, and subjects are very far from decolonised, but the Afrikaans president of the Temporary-appointed-not-elected- Student Representative Council vows, in the campus newspaper, to keep ‘politics’ out of the student universe. “It’s so that the medical faculty can continue to use Wouter Basson as a role model,” sneers a former medical student about the famous apartheid doctor who sought to develop poisons that affect blacks-only, who taught here and is apparently still held in high esteem by some  For background on the chemical and biological military programme doctor Wouter Basson put together at the service of the apartheid state see this this study by Chandre Gould: www.nonproliferation.org/wp-content/uploads/npr/73gould.pdf.

Last year’s hope

For whoever felt that the ‘rainbow’ promise of a new, fair, multiracial Africa had gone down the drain, flooded by corruption, crime and continued inequality, the South African student movement in 2015 had brought new hope. Here was youth of all colours, demanding, finally, an end to poverty and racism. A new generation who would open the doors of learning as it said in the Freedom Charter and transform the black ghettos. South Africa’s youth would fulfil the rainbow nations promises where the ANC had stopped short.

Brynne Guthrie, a law student who participated in the 2015 protests at Tuks, felt that education should not only be free, but also less sexist and racist. “The atmosphere was oppressive to so many of us. White students were getting better rooms than black ones, whilst female newcomers were subject to macho initiation rites where they had to wear a white styrofoam hat that they had to protect from men who tried to ‘grab’ it –a disgusting losing-your- virginity metaphor.” Guthrie had chosen law in the hope to learn about justice in South Africa, but ‘most courses simply prepared us for the corporate world.” She fondly remembers one lecturer, who organised sessions with activists who were still trying to get apartheid torturers and killers to trial.

Such progressive lecturers, together with parents and old anti-apartheid activists (quite a few parents were old anti-apartheid activists,) had supported the protests. They had happily dished out advice on how to cope with riot police and teargas, had stood on the side of the streets where the kids’ marched, handing out sunscreen and bottles of water. They had cheered, some even cried, when white students formed a chain shielding their black comrades from rather too aggressive police charges. (Policemen, black and white, always hit harder when seeing black.)

Cheers had especially been directed at the very organised University of Witwatersrand Student Representative Council (SRC), in which two young women played key roles: new SRC president, tall, straight, impressive Nompumelelo Mkhatswa with her ANC doek, who, in front, facing riot police and armoured vehicles, didn’t even blink; and former SRC president Shaeera Kalla, slightly more removed from the limelight but just as determined and brave. With them, the movement marched on the Union Buildings and managed to get a sheepish Jacob Zuma to drop the hated fee increases.


Fast forward to early 2017. Fees are up again and the student movement is a shadow of what it was. The University of Pretoria is back to its walled, white-Afrikaans old self. The reason: incidents of student violence last year. In some places buildings had been set on fire and chairs and books had been thrown out of windows. The police clamped down hard and beleaguered-feeling university administrations had followed suit.

Meanwhile, Nompumelelo Mkhatswa had been discredited. Her mistake had been to give an interview to a glossy magazine, agreeing to appear on its cover as ‘leader’ of the students, a move that was interpreted as pretentious. “We don’t have leaders,” angry activists said and she had had to go. During one of the last protests in 2016, Shaeera Kalla, too, was neutralised: shot thirteen times with rubber bullets, she spent months in hospital and is still recovering. Neither of them now feels comfortable speaking to the press, nor do others: everyone is fearful of accusations of ‘pretending to be leaders.’

Among the last press interviews given by Shaeera Kalla is a radio talk with, at the end, a sentence that is separate from the rest of her argument. “Of course we don’t want regime change,” she says suddenly, after lucidly explaining the rationale of “Fees must Fall.” The sentence stands strangely apart, as if she felt it her duty to insert it somewhere.

An evil plot

The term, ‘regime change,’ might just be at the root of the deconfiture of the movement that had demanded that the ANC government fulfil its promises. ‘Regime change’ entered the South African lexicon as something bad, something that the CIA and George W Bush did in Iraq: an alleged evil plot to unseat an elected president. All through 2016, the term was applied to everyone and anyone who criticised the current government, notably Jacob Zuma. Zuma himself has said it dozens of times: his critics are agents of the CIA and, that other new, rapidly spreading term: white monopoly capital.

You don’t want to be that.

With the narrative catching on, many moderate student activists started to believe that those who fomented violence were ‘radicals’ who wanted ‘regime change.’ It followed that a student activist in good faith was not opposed to Zuma’s government.

‘The message that ‘those who want regime change’ were the problem was propagated by the State Security Service’

The message that ‘those who want regime change’ were the problem was propagated by the State Security Service. The State Security Service SSA is headed by Zuma-loyalist David Mahlobo, whose invites to Wits SRC student leader Mcebo Dlamini to his own home on at least two occasions –visits that were first confirmed, then denied, then confirmed again by Mahlobo- were seen to be part of a wider pattern. According to student movement veteran Thato Magogodi, a former Wits SRC president who keeps close links with the new generation, ‘many of us were approached.’

It was perhaps a coincidence that, in the period that Mcebo Dlamini was visiting the minister of state security, the same Dlamini posted a message on Facebook that compared whites to Adolf Hitler For more on Mcebo Dlamini’s Facebook post see this article in Vuvuzela, the magazine of the University of the Witwatersrand: www.witsvuvuzela.com/2015/04/27/src-president-says-i-love-hitler/. It was perhaps also a coincidence that ‘fuck white people’ graffiti started to appear on the walls of the University of Witwatersrand at around the same time. But the effect of it was that the focus of the student movement was diverted to a more general anti-white drive.

The flames of anti-white hatred were also fanned by President Jacob Zuma himself, who, in response to protests against the plunder of state coffers under his watch, had taken enthusiastically to pointing at ‘white monopoly capital’ as the real obstacle to a new, more egalitarian, South Africa. Minor Zuma-ites in what was now known as ‘paid twitter’ often even dropped the ‘monopoly capital’ bit and simply accused ‘white racists’ of all that was wrong in the country. For the first time since the end of apartheid, South Africa had people in power who openly propagated racial hatred.

A white colonial world

But of course the ‘White Monopoly Capital’ narrative’ was also true. In South Africa today, white still largely equals rich, whilst –save for a lucky few – the black majority is still banished to remote ghettos. The Amahle’s and Sandile’s from Umlazi (see the former episode in this series, January 2017) might, at 14 years old, still be happy to have access to a township school with broken windows and never even think about white people, -let alone hate them-, but how long will it take for them, should they reach the white and lavish world of the University of Cape Town (UCT), to start feeling how unfair it all is? They will walk around like Koketso in Pretoria, being looked at as second class, with less money for food and books, staying in cheaper, more remote rooms, using rickety buses instead of own cars, hurrying to make classes on time where white professors will gently scold them for having ‘African timing’ and learning from white books that speak in no way to the world they grew up in. And they might get angry then.

‘There are a lot of white-dominated high schools that still tell our youth they can’t speak their own language’

“It is still going to get a lot worse,” says Obaratile Semenya, a lecturer at UCT and an active participant in the decolonisation movement in that institution that proudly got rid of the offensively colonialist Cecil Rhodes statue that until 2015 had gazed over the Cape campus. “There are a lot of white-dominated high schools that still tell our youth they can’t have their own hair or speak their own language. That anger is still going to erupt. And that warm rainbow blanket will get ripped off completely.”

To Semenya and others in the various decolonisation groups at UCT, whiteness is the problem. Perhaps even more of a problem than not having the money to get into university in the first place. Semanya feels that in some ways white academia is even worse than life on the farms. “On the farm it is clear that the white ‘baas’ can whip you. But in university, when you feel hurt, you get told that you don’t get it and you are wrong. You are taught that as an African you needed the Greeks to teach you how to count, -whilst clearly the pyramids could not have been built without calculus. You are taught that it is science to explore the planet Mars, but exploring how to transform the black townships is not; you are even taught lies about the crimes of Cecil John Rhodes.”

The focus on whiteness, rather than on a simple demand for resources and action from government, means there is little or no focus on corruption or Jacob Zuma. “That is like flogging a dead horse,” shrugs Semenya. “Governments will always serve the rich, which is white monopoly capital. So what you have to do is change who the rich are.”

Black debt

Zuma himself would nod enthusiastically at this of course, even if the rise to wealth and power by his lucky few favoured businesspeople and politicians is unlikely to help the Amahle’s and the Sandile’s of Umlazi. “We must take that corrupt money,” says Tanele Dlamini, a fourth year student with silver white dyed hair, who is having a cooldrink at a party during the Wits intro week. “And that money from the white capitalists, too. As long as it is then used to help make education better and for our bursaries. “Not loans,” explains her fellow 4th year friend, bright and passionate Phumla Zita. “We can’t pay back loans. We have black debt already –we are the first ones in our families to go to university. They expect us to be breadwinners and also help our little brothers and sisters get there.”

Both Dlamini and Zita feel the ANC  government has betrayed them. “We were beaten so hard,” says Zita. “They said we were violent. But we weren’t.” Both felt that ‘unknown people’ were provoking violence.  Zita: “Cars were following us.” Dlamini: “We always wondered if they paid some people to make trouble.” Zita: “One day we got permission to protest in a certain area. But when we went there we found the riot police waiting.” Who called them? University management? The SSA? An informer? Nobody knows. “No one trusts each other now.”

“We were branded with the regime change label and forced to deny it,” says Wits SRC deputy secretary general Kaamil Alli, when I meet him and a few other SRC members in their offices on the Wits campus. “That strategy worked.”  He feels it will be a while before the movement has recovered. “We won better access to student bursaries, but the bursary fund is still managed badly. Our office is swamped with people who simply can’t get them.”

All in the current SRC agree that it is about more than just money to get a degree. Nontobeko: “I learn more about old European leaders than about Thomas Sankara  Thomas Sankara is the father of the nation of Burkina Faso.. Why?” Kaamil, who is in health sciences: “How can a doctor treat a client population that he or she does not know?” Cebolenkosi: “We need to get back into the ghettos and play a role there.” They mention the other struggle they have been waging: the one against contract labour used by universities, in which cleaners, guards and gardeners are underpaid and exploited. “They are our mothers and fathers. They need decent wages.”

I am surprised to learn that, even at Wits, a hotbed of progressive ideology since the 1970’s, all senators except eight are white.

An incognito official

The higher education department official opposite me has piled up the figures: what government funding goes to which colleges, how many students are accessing bursaries, what are the percentages of increases over the years. “But it is not enough, not nearly.” The official is not happy with how the government handled the students in 2016, -and neither is, he says, his minister Blade Nzimande, a known Zuma opponent-, which is why he wants to remain anonymous. But he admits that the problems are enormous. 70 percent of students do not complete their studies, “mostly because of financial problems, but also because basic and secondary education is so bad.”

It’s true: besides suffering from lack of resources, teacher absenteeism, alcoholism and even pupil abuse, too, run rampant, particularly in the black township areas. Moreover, many teachers themselves don’t seem qualified, perhaps because they got the job through nepotism or were simply never tested: being taught maths by someone who can barely count is no exception. “The youth is not even prepared for university, but that’s where everyone wants to go.” Encouraging high school students to consider non-university vocational training is part of higher education policy since the country needs not only academics but also practical experts and technicians. The problem is that many old-fashioned technical colleges are still suffering stigma as former pillars of the hated Bantu education.

I was therefore a total colonial white madam who allocates white names to ‘natives’

Better education is possible, says the officer, but probably not while Zuma is president. “Nepotism and cronyism stand in the way of improving quality.” He confesses that, in his free time and incognito, he attends the meetings of Save SA, the campaign calling for the resignation of the president. Even cabinet ministers do that now. “If regime change is to say that Zuma must go, then I’m for regime change,” says veteran student activist Thato Mogogodi.


Three students at the completely black Tshwane University of Technology in Soshanguve township, 35 kilometers outside Pretoria, hope for fruits from renewed negotiations soon. “We don’t want violence, it means that we can’t write our exams, which means we lag behind,” says one of the three, who, on break, sit on a garden bench under a tree in the midday sun. All three come from families far away in Kwa Zulu Natal and are studying teaching. “Our families support us,” says the second one. “We must not drop out.” “I hope for the protection of my ancestors,” the first one smiles, catching my look at his leopard skin bracelet. “Our ancestors help us a lot. They talk to us, guide us.”