As South African universities ready for the new academic year — and potentially renewed conflict between students and university managements and government – Himal Ramji questions the narrow authoritarianism creeping into the Fees Must Fall movement 


The beginning of 2016 saw growing ferment at South African universities. By October, universities across the country had shut down. Re-opening dates were, in part, the subject of negotiations. Divisions had grown across planes, not least between students themselves.

These divisions spawned from multiple points – gender, race, class, academic discipline, etc. The events of 2016 are only in part due to the minimal resolutions of 2015 regarding students’ call for decolonized and fee-free education. In 2016, new problems emerged.

The management crisis at universities appears amid a national leadership crisis. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and his alleged “Rogue Unit” stand subject to the judgment of the courts, while President Jacob Zuma and his cohort remain largely untouched (and seemingly untouchable). The leadership of the Democratic Alliance (DA) stands rattled amid the obvious racism that saturates its membership, as well as the mainstream recognition of its   penchant for gentrification in the Western Cape and now in Gauteng. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) remains questionable as typically South African leftists (reminiscent of the “Gucci-Communism” of the South African Communist Party). Beyond this, the South African Broadcasting Cooperation (SABC), among other state organs, is losing independent-minded and experienced employees amid the tumult surrounding head Hlaudi Motsoeneng. All this while ANC Youth League leader, Colin Maine, professes the Youth League’s support for Motsoeneng and his own personal admiration for Vladimir Putin.

These are to name only a few of the fractures in the national leadership landscape. We need not delve into the global rise of fascist-style leadership in Europe, and now in the USA with the Donald Trump’s ascendency to the White House. Michel Temer’s coup in Brazil should also not go unnoticed in this pattern of politics. There is a global trend towards undemocratic politics and authoritarian practices.

More locally, at our universities there have been calls for the resignation of vice-chancellors  including Wits University’s Adam Habib and the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Max Price. The latter via a chaotic Convocation meeting, the legitimacy of which has been questioned by students, academics and various other concerned parties. This year will see Francis Petersen, the former deputy vice-chancellor at UCT, taking over the vice-chancellor’s duties at the University of Free State (UFS), following the resignation of Jonathan Jansen. UCT’s Dean of Humanities, Sakhela Buhlungu, moves on to Fort Hare and the vice-chancellorship there.

This ‘diaspora’ of UCT upper-management does not seem unimportant. Certainly, it is not a stretch to describe the relations between students and the university’s management as polarised. The relations are far from amicable, considering the new apartheid-style rules regarding protests and assemblies at UCT, released in late December 2016. Almost as a rule, when protests did erupt in 2015 and 2016, the knee-jerk reaction from management has too often been a nod towards private security. We have, on numerous occasions, borne witness to apartheid-style state and private security violence against not just students, but staff as well.

The theory behind this polarisation is often presented simply as: ‘an authoritarian and violent state and institution’, versus ‘a victimised black student body’; or alternatively, ‘management that is just doing its job’, versus a ‘violent minority of students’.

Student reactions

The reactions from students, however, have often been far from peaceful. But this is not to glorify or propose ‘passive resistance’ or some sort of post-colonial Satyagraha, but rather to attempt to engage the strategies of struggle employed by our student movements. Where do our strategies of resistance come from? And how are they articulated and executed?

There is often reference to the Sharpeville Massacre, the Soweto Uprising of 1976, Pan Africanist Congress leader Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and 2012’s massacre of mineworkers at Marikana. Beyond South Africa, Frantz Fanon, Thomas Sankara, Kimberle Crenshaw, bell hooks, and Amilcar Cabral have come to saturate the intellectual bravado of our student movements.

However, this theoretical historical repertoire has often culminated in an exclusionary politics, which imposes an historically colonial dichotomy on people. In certain cases, something deeply reactionary is emerging: decisions to oppose management, while purporting to be ‘revolutionary’, are decided upon undemocratically, through violent rhetoric, fanaticism and political exclusion of Black students themselves.

Authoritarianism and Separatism

But what is most worrying, beyond this reproduction of the colonial condition, is the adoption, or production, by Fees Must Fall (FMF) of an authoritarian logic of organisation. Take for example 2016’s series of November meetings organised at UCT: advertised as “closed”, the invitation extended to “Biko Blacks Only”.

To make the “Blacks-only” meeting public on social media is to concretise a wilful racial separation in the very organisation of the movement. This makes no sense in a movement ostensibly based on Black Consciousness and intersectionality. Separation and division are not revolutionary, particularly when it is to reproduce the divisions of the very system we wish to change. The division of the oppressed by the oppressed is the very antithesis of revolution – it is the expression of a colonised mind.

Further, in a similar vein to the authoritarian practices critiqued by the movement(s), FMF and its affiliates are often guilty themselves of a severe intolerance of dissent within and beyond their ranks. This culminates in a profound lack of dialogue, and an unwillingness to engage in debate and deliberation. One need only look so far as the recent UCT Convocation meeting, or any FMF meeting for that matter. Indeed, social media spats, particularly on Facebook, provide evidence of this refusal to engage in a dialectical or dialogical politics of resistance. Certainly, this article will be either badly received by the movement, or remain unread, like so many better-constructed analyses.


Beyond the insistence on self-imposed separation, there is a worrying admiration professed by leaders of (Wits) FMF towards Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in their hunt for the Jews. Obviously there has been a failure to engage Cabral’s distaste for the Nazis, when he critiques Joseph Goebbels’ distaste for culture among the oppressed.

That such sentiments are defended leaves one cold. That anti-Semitic ideas exist in the movement is enough. That anti-Semitic attitudes are uttered by the leadership is too much. And we need to be vocal in our disapproval of such attitudes. We should not repeat the general white apathy of the apartheid-era. We should not seek to reproduce that of which we are determinedly critical.

The anti-Semitic graffiti at Wits late last year is evidence that such attitudes have permeated the ‘mass’ levels of the movement, even if expressed only by a tiny minority. I see two things here. First, it is simply anti-Semitic. Second, it is a misguided attempt to be politically progressive. In the case of the latter, the conflation of political Zionism and Judaism goes a long way in exemplifying the lack of internalisation, critical reflection and reading within even the highest ranks of FMF.

Misappropriating theory: Strategising the Neverlution

Yet, appropriation is necessary to the decolonial project. We see in Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks the appropriation, critique and modification of, for example, Hegel’s ‘master-slave’ dialectic. Similarly, in A Dying Colonialism, Fanon writes of the instrumentalisation of, among other things, the veil and the radio during the Algerian Revolution.

But rather than appropriation in an effort to ‘open the door of every consciousness’, often the student movement has spawned parodies such as “Shackville TRC” (playing on ‘Sharpeville’ and the TRC). We also see political concepts reduced to buzzwords: ‘decolonisation’, ‘transformation’, ‘black consciousness’, ‘revolution’ and ‘intersectionality’. It is only in rare moments that any of these are given meaning. Increasingly though, these concepts and practices are being emptied, or at the very least been narrowed in meaning, by the student movement.

Black Consciousness and Intersectionality

The Black Consciousness Movement of the 1970s was based on inclusivity, with oppressed peoples uniting under the banner of ‘Blackness’ at a time when such groups were not allowed, by law, to unite and organise. On this basis, the Movement aimed to fight white domination, and defy apartheid’s fragmentation of races. As Biko explained, it was a mode of achieving liberation: “The quintessence of it is the realisation by the Blacks that, in order to feature well in this game of power politics, they have to use the concept of group power and build a strong foundation for this.”

‘Intersectionality’ is a conceptual tool for bringing the divisible category of ‘the oppressed’ together, in mutual reflection upon the problems that manifest in the diversity of the united group. Intersectional thinking recognises the differences that exist within our groups, and the different struggles that people face. This is exactly to say that the violence against black women is very much the concern of all, and that this mutual concern cannot be realised by the broader movement if doors are closed and walls erected.

In advocating for Black women to make their own spaces, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw never requires that whites be removed. The fact that it is difficult to think about ‘Black space’ without removing whites from that space bears testament to the horrific efficacy of colonial strategies of domination. We end up imposing colonial division upon our own ‘anti-colonial’ organisation.

The Blacks-only meeting at UCT and the manner in which it was publicised forgets that the apartheid project at its height was premised on ‘separate development’. Not only was this rejected by Black anti-apartheid activists, but its manifestations, for example the tricameral parliament and Bantustans, became rallying points for a united anti-apartheid movement. This idea of separate development was embraced only by the most traditional elite, and disparaged by most black freedom fighters.

Amnesiac leaders

Amnesia brings with it the dangers of repetition and regression. And for us – South Africans, Africans, historically and contemporarily oppressed peoples – to regress towards our most brutal past will bring nothing less than tragedy.

That the strategies of the state and FMF could both be described as sometimes ‘reactionary’ goes a long way in encapsulating the commonalities between the existing regime, and those who wish to transform (or depose) the incumbent powers. Contemporary strategy and historical theory imply that rather than transforming the system, much of the movement merely seeks to replace existing powers with their own narrow conceptions of sovereign authority.

We must be cognisant of what has existed before, what we oppose and why we are opposed to it, what we are, and what we wish to become. We cannot afford to repeat our history, or butcher our future.

Main Photo: Exclusion in the name of the “revolution”… an authoritarian intolerance that mirrors apartheid’s attempts to fracture South Africa along racial lines has crept into the Fees Must Fall movement, argues the writer. - By Daylin Paul

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