by Michael Brown
A focus on understanding the socio-political and economic context, with notes on crucial terminology
But why can’t we all just move on?
Because time is fluid and, like the wake behind a boat, the legacy of the past is drawn on with us.
The #FeesMustFall movement burgeoned as an apolitical but highly politicized national movement out of its predecessor, the more focal #RhodesMustFall student movement. Both of which emerged from the student body at the University of Cape Town (UCT) last year. While #RhodesMustFall focused on disrupting the stasis that permeated this liberal, elitist institution, #FeesMustFall went further and took the complacent national leadership to task.
These movements resorted to radical tactics of protest to test the balance of power in an emerging society and also to ensure that a rate of change is implemented which suits this new society, rather than the stagnating organs of power.
On the 9th of March 2015, UCT student Chumani Maxwele doused a sculpture of Cecil John Rhodes with human excrement. The statue, standing prominently at the foot of UCT’s Jameson Steps, was seen as a symbol both of the injurious colonization of South Africa historically, and the ineptitude of UCT’s current transformation program. This visceral act of public protest is commonly acknowledged as the ignition point of the #RhodesMustFall movement. It must be understood that the objectives of the subsequent #FeesMustFall movement differ significantly in scale, cohesion and focus from those of its precursor, the #RhodesMustFall movement.
The #RhodesMustFall movement demanded the removal of the sculpture of Rhodes from Jameson Steps as a symbolic gesture of renewed commitment to decolonisation and transformation on the part of UCT administration. In broad strokes, decolonisation is a process of adaptation through reduction and is applied to existing structures, while transformation is a process that also includes development and production of new structures. This movement envisaged a process of decolonisation running in conjunction with a program of change within the university administration, academic curricula, and employment and enrollment criteria.
Following the first escalation in protest activity on campus, UCT Council voted in agreement with the demand that the sculpture be removed. The removal of Rhodes is one aspect of the decolonisation process. After that, UCT also agreed to abandon the structural inequality of ‘outsourcing’ policy to ensure all employees at the university benefitted equally from the university’s employment policy. The restructuring of the university’s hiring protocol is one aspect of the transformation program.
#RMF, an abbreviation of #RhodesMustFall, has become the title of the umbrella movement, which draws together the objectives of both campaigns and provides credibility and accountability.
To accurately understand both movements and reasonably track their successes, failures, and objectives, one must understand the socio-political context which has given birth to them. These movements have not risen unexpectedly out of the darkest of crevices. The #FeesMustFall movement is both a logical and rational product of the social, political and economic environment peculiar to the ‘New South Africa.’ As such, the #FeesMustFall movement should be seen as a rather predictable consequence of a post-colonial nation stung by the iniquity of racialism, attempting to emerge from relative isolation into a dystopia ordered by a supposed free market that supports neocolonialism.
#RMF believes that South Africa remains in the grip of white capital’s neocolonial influence and that the elected government is not serving the needs of South Africans. Provision of quality education is identified as an important tool in the process of transformation. Free education was one aspect of the ANC’s electoral campaign, yet the term on term ANC has cut back on the education budget. Evidence indicates that the quality of primary education is deteriorating under the ANC’s watch. #FeesMustFall is holding the government accountable to their promise, demanding that access to quality education be made a priority.
Brazil, another BRICS member, sets a precedent for South Africa by providing free tertiary education for qualifying students. The institutions are funded through taxation.
Some notes on crucial terminology surrounding the #FeesMustFall movement
A nuanced understanding of the following terms is vital in cultivating an appreciation of the locally specific dynamics at play. A simple online search is not entirely sufficient if one is not yet acquainted with the terminology being flung about, much like Mr. Maxwele’s deluge. The following notes are intended to supplement such definitions as would be offered by global resources.
Whiteness: this is a critical comment on the self-regarding universalism of the West (Eurocentrism), an accusation of whiteness demands a pause and appraisal of a situation with empathy for the non-white experience.
Eurocentrism: We understand the world according to our organisation of it. Through images, language, built form, and other translations, our perception of the world is molded according to our representations of it. Therefore, things may only appear to us according to the logic of these abstractions. *Also White supremacy
White privilege is the proverbial silver spoon: that inherited toolkit which ensures a white skinned or European person of greater ease in attaining comfort and success in life than a non-white or non-European counterpart.
Relating to white privilege and introducing the concept of intersectionality, are the privileges of being male in a patriarchal society (patriarchy); being ‘straight’ in a heteronormative society; having access to finance in a capitalist society (capitalism); and generally being fit, healthy and unencumbered in a dog-eat-dog world (ableism). This, of course, means that a black lesbian who rides a wheelchair in Langa is unlikely to be riding it to UCT… unless she has access to meaningful financial aid. *Cue #FeesMustFall
Black debt: a sympathetic acknowledgment of the broader financial constraints that differentiate a non-white person’s attempt to attain financial freedom in comparison to a white person’s attempt. An example being that it is normal for a black graduate to spend part of his or her salary to support members of their extended family, while this is not normal for a white graduate.
White capital: the argument that power is ultimately wielded by white-owned financial institutions and corporations, both globally and nationally. As a consequence, decolonisation and transformation of economic structures lag behind socio-political and legal structures.
Black rage: the seething anger (or an expression of this anger) that builds up when a non-white person feels unable to communicate their experience of pain without justifying their experience within the parameters of a white (Eurocentric) conception of the experience.
Decolonisation: the first step in the process of decolonisation is that of entertaining a dialogue in which we self-consciously admit to the presence of residual structure from the colonial project. The second step is identifying those aspects of the colonial project that impede current transformation programs and opportunities for reform. The third step is to implement measures to deconstruct these impediments.
Transformation: the movement acknowledges existing transformation programs but fights for faster and more meaningful transformation. They demand the proactive and sensitive development of structures that support social, political and especially economic reform. These structures are intended to afford non-whites an equal opportunity through sustained enablement programs that compensate for a legacy of dispossession induced by the colonial project.