Statue of Rhodes, University of Cape TownEarlier this year I was asked to write an article on film and media in South African higher education institutions.  At the time, the #RhodesMustFall (#RMF) movement was at its peak at the University of Cape Town (where I lecture), bringing into sharp relief conflicts that had been simmering in the university for some time. At the time, I felt quite shaken by the debate. What was the value of what we taught? Had we thought enough about how the student body had changed?

The marches, lectures, sit-ins, and social media statements that culminated in the removal of the statue from campus, not only challenged everyday assumptions about studying at UCT; #RMF’s calls for decolonisation of the curriculum also disrupted the annual fanfare of worldwide university rankings by calling into question the project of higher education in South Africa in 2015. What did it mean to be in the top 150 universities in the world?

At a seminar on Frantz Fanon, organised by #RMF, Achille Mbembe said:

To be perfectly frank I have to add that our task is rendered all the more complex because there is hardly any agreement as to the meaning, and even less so the future, of what goes by the name the university in our world today. Not only in South Africa. There’s no agreement. There might have been some agreement at the beginning of the 20th century, but that is no longer the case. So when we say decolonising the university, what are we talking about?

That provocative question underpinned the groundswell of student protest that found its focus with the nationwide fees protests in October. Beyond the 0% increase promised by government, there were several significant features of the #FeesMustFall (#FMF) that relate directly to media teaching and research at universities.

For one, media students were involved directly in the protests, photographing, recording, and tweeting events, producing a narrative that was frequently at odds with both the mainstream media, and claims made by the state.[i] On the Friday that students marched at the Union Buildings, the Cape Argus offered students in Cape Town the opportunity to put together a portion of the Friday morning edition, including the front page headlines and photograph.

Furthermore, the fees protests produced a wealth of excellent journalism and essays on a range of online sites (Daily Maverick, The Con, Africa is a Country). While the daily news aggregators plodded along, trying to keep up with the rapidly spreading movement, Facebook and Twitter feeds shared up a storm of thought-provoking opinion pieces.

Thirdly, the protests and the way in which they spread clearly took the government by surprise and (then) Minister of Finance, Nhlanhla Nene, admitted as much.[ii] Meanwhile, the President and the Minister of Higher Education appeared less than certain about how to match the media scale as the movement gained support from broader civil society. Bewildered by the solidarity #FMF attracted, the 0% decision seemed like a capitulation.

Social media collapsed the country’s geography as protests seamlessly moved from the Houses of Parliament on Wednesday, to Luthuli House on Thursday and finally, the Union Buildings on Friday. Governments can generally handle localised actions (service delivery, municipal boundary disputes) and the mainstream media quickly moves onto the more topical stories. However, spontaneous national protests are harder to manage, and to spin in the media.

The most significant feature of the protests was the way young South Africans managed to share in the optimism of shared social action. For the parents of some students there might be nostalgic stirrings of sit-ins and teargas, but the feeling of taking their protests to the gates of power, and of forcing the hand of both the state and university councils will belong to this group of students.

This will have consequences for institutions of higher learning in South Africa. There seems little doubt that protests will intensify in 2016. After the success of one 0% fees campaign, will universities (and the state) risk another round of disruptions when the time comes to budget for 2017? And while the demands for an end to outsourcing appear to have been met, they have not been fully resolved.

Another tone that became more prominent as the protests continued was the growing criticism of the liberation narrative students have been taught their whole lives. Mandela, once a virtually unassailable figure in South Africa’s political consciousness is now a “tired” and “weary” struggle icon, sweet-talked by the white economic elite into compromises at the expense of young black South Africans. For some, he simply sold out.[iii]

The hashtag revolutions of 2015 show that the current student body does not buy into the complacency of world status and recognition from the global north. Students are also not content with merely tinkering with the university system so that access is open to more young people: what and how they learn, who they learn it from and who shares in their learning is fundamental to understanding the role universities play in society.

[i] Haupt A (2015) #FeesMustFall: Democracy Under Fire. Daily Maverick, October, 29. Available at: http://www.theconmag.co.za/2015/10/29/feesmustfall-democracy-under-fire/.

[ii] Gerber J (2015) #FeesMustFall: Protests were too fast for us, Nene admits. City Press, October, 22. Available at: http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/FeesMustFall-Protests-were-too-fast-for-us-Nene-admits-20151022

[iii] Munusamy R (2015) Pursuing the revolution versus “selling out”: Did the ANC make the right choice? Daily Maverick, December, 8. Available at: http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2015-12-08-pursuing-the-revolution-versus-selling-out-did-the-anc-make-the-right-choice/#.VmaaHFjK58U.twitter

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