Statue of Rhodes, University of Cape Town

State of urgency: The Humanities in South Africa (AHHE 15.1)

As the academic year comes to its formal end in South Africa, there are few campuses where there is any end in sight.

Wave after wave of student protests — including marches, occupations of buildings, police over-reaction and occasional intense vandalism — have meant either the cancellation or delay of end of year examinations across the country.

Many of the students of 2014 are left unable to graduate or uncertain of their entry into the next year of study, as exams have on many campuses been deferred in the face of sometimes violent protest.

This may well be a price that many are prepared to pay for the victory achieved, as government crumbled in the face of student protest.

As thousands of students came together as #FeesMustFall in front of the Union Buildings in Pretoria on October 23rd, President Jacob Zuma and his ministers were meeting with vice-chancellors and selected student leaders to discuss what Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande had insisted was ‘not a crisis’.

But, at the end of day, in an embarrassingly stiff and formal broadcast on state television, a visibly uncomfortable Zuma giggled his way through a prepared speech in the inimitably inappropriate manner he reserves for difficult moments  and conceded that there would be no fee increases for the academic year 2016.

Somehow (though no detail was given) the money would be found to fill the 2.18 billion rand shortfall (for next year alone); and this despite the poor state of the public purse, and as South Africa hovers on the edge of recession and junk bond status.

The choice of media alone demonstrated the gap between the country’s ageing freedom fighters and the new generation of ‘born frees’ (the generation born after the formal end of apartheid in 1994).  For these, the historical achievement of a progressive constitutional democracy, and its promise of equal citizenship for all, counts for little or nothing.

Though student participation has increased by a massive 80%, some 55% of students are unlikely ever to complete their degrees, with that figure rising to around 72% for students (largely black students) supported by the government loan system, NSFAS.

For the born frees, William Faulkner’s appalled recognition – ‘The past is never dead.  It’s not even past’ –  rings all too true, and the structural persistence of forms of racialized inequality at every level of society and of the economy stands at the centre of student rage.  Into intense debates around the right to academic freedom come gathering uncertainties around and challenges to the ‘Western’ idea of constitutional democracy – with, at the centre of this, a decontextualized idea of the citizen removed from all material considerations, including the blunt materiality of race.

This issue was compiled around the moment of the first wave of # protests, #RhodesMustFall, but its contents throw light on many of the key issues, experiences and feelings at work in the subsequent developments around the #FeesMustFall campaign.

Our decision to name this issue ‘State of Urgency’ seems fully vindicated, as the different articles and essays work to engage some of the central issues raised in student protests.  Readers can get a sense of what is inspiring them from the students, academics and senior figures in the humanities writing for us.

In particular, novelist and academic Njabulo Ndebele’s insight into how he and his generation  ‘were without choice educated in a schooling environment that in its content orientated us away intellectually from our formative environments of home and community’  and how the consequent alienation now translates into a situation, ‘where there may have once been the inner pain of self-degradation, there is now an inner sense of entitlement’ is crucial for any understanding of the current protests.  Similarly, social theorist  Achille Mbembe – in the text of an oral presentation provoked by  #RhodesMustFall – poses perhaps the central political question for a South Africa in which  ‘[m]any still consider whites as “settlers” who, once in a while, will attempt to masquerade as “natives”. And yet, with the advent of democracy and the new constitutional State, there are no longer settlers or natives. There are only citizens. If we repudiate democracy, what will we replace it with?’

State of urgency indeed.

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