South African Uni Student Protests 2015

Black youth are more ignored than white young people, in that in a country that is 80% black, they comprise less than a quarter of the university students at the most respected and oldest public university, the University of Cape Town. The language of instruction is English. Only 5% of the faculty is black; looking at all 26 public universities, only 14% of full professors are black.[i] Students protested the lack of black students and faculty in 2015, occupying the student government office in an effort to “decolonize” the university as shown in a video.[ii] Faculty spoke about the need to recognize the ongoing impact of colonialism, deconstruct and reconstruct the university as revealed in a video of a panel discussion.[iii] In March, a student threw feces at a campus statue of Cecil Rhodes, the British colonialist who donated land to the university part of a call for “Rhodes Must Fall” in the “poo protest.” The statue was removed the next month leading an activist student to comment, “We finally got the white man to sit down and listen to us.”[iv] Students did marathon reading of anti-colonist author Fantz Fanon and Steve Biko, leader of the black consciousness movement. They demanded more black faculty members and students and a more African curriculum.

In the largest Born Free student demonstrations since apartheid ended in 1994, in October following the Rhodes demonstration, young men threw rocks after a week of student demonstrations of both black and white against proposed hikes in university fees in one of the most unequal major county with over half the people living below the official poverty rate.[v] The police reacted with stun grenades, rubber bullets and chemical water cannons. A BBC news report showed a young woman trying to stop the violence to no avail. The #FeesMustFall campaign closed 17 major universities and rallied large crowds at parliament in Cape Town in the capital, Pretoria. The National Shutdown Collective organized students from 19 universities; many were members of student movements such as the Black Student Movement and Uprising. The Communist Party Minister of Education Blade Nzimande supported a price increase and said “students must fall,” not the statue, but students won when President Zuma agreed at a press conference to no increase in university fees in 2016 but ignored other demands.

Students also demanded free education (university fees are around $8,800 a year) and an end to outsourcing university support employees. A BBC TV reporter said youth delivered “a potent new message” because the ANC or other political parties didn’t participated in the grassroots protest. Graduate student Mikaela Erskog, member of the Black Student Movement, believes the protests illustrate “a shifting of generationally-embedded ideologies in a real challenge to the existing relations of power…Unlike elders who refuse to transform the older of things—the movements are re-imagining what a truly transformed African university might look like.”[vi]

[i] Norimmitsu Onishi, “Students in South Africa Protest slow Pace of Change,” New York Times, September 8, 2015.


[iii] “Panel Discussion: Decolonizing the University,” April 23, 2015.

[iv] “Rhodes Statue Removed in Cape Town as Crowd Celebrates,” BBC News, April 9, 2015.

[v] Patrick Bond, “South African Student Protests,” TeleSUR, October 24, 2015.

[vi] Mikaela Erskog, “South African Students Rise Up to Demand Free Education,” ROAR Magazine, October 24, 2015.


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