Young South Africans Demand Change

This story was reported by Caroline Boras, Lindsay Castleberry, Myers McGarry, Rachel Stone and Abby Thornton. It was written by Castleberry.

Twenty-two years after the fall of Apartheid, young people in South Africa are tired of waiting for the opportunities promised by Nelson Mandela and his generation of leaders of the African National Congress.

“We are supposed to be Mandela’s children, but we are not equal,” said Pontsho Pilane, a journalist for South Africa’s Mail & Guardian. “The system needs to be completely overhauled. What is up now needs to come down. We are tired of waiting.”

Under the banner of a movement called “Fees Must Fall,” students at the University of the Witwatersrand and several other South African universities, have disrupted classes, damaged statues and artwork, burned buildings, and clashed with security staff and police over the past two years.

Their demands have spread to nearly all aspects of life in the country known as the Rainbow Nation.

“We’re tired of being told to wait and be patient,” said Tokelo Nhlapo, 26, a speechwriter and researcher for the Economic Freedom Fighters, a political party that emerged in 2013 that is challenging the ANC. “We don’t want to entrust the role of supplying our dignity to anyone else. We want to do it ourselves.”

Young people are demanding free, quality higher education for everyone. They want to be taught an Afro-centric, not Western curriculum—by lecturers who are not all white men. They also are demanding safe “spaces” to protect and celebrate their differences in race, gender and sexuality.

Mandela, a political prisoner for 27 years, was freed in 1990 after he struck an historic agreement with F.W. de Klerk, then president of the white minority-led government. In 1994, Mandela was elected president of South Africa in the first non-racial election.

In the ANC’s 1994 National Election Manifesto, it proclaimed:

“Democracy means more than just the vote. It must be measured by the quality of life of ordinary people—men and women, young and old, rural and urban. It means giving all South Africans the opportunity to share in the country’s wealth, to contribute to its development and to improve their own lives.”

To achieve that vision for South Africa, the government promised, among other things to redistribute 30 percent of land that blacks had been forced to leave during Apartheid. So far, less than 6 percent of land has been given back to its original owners–a fact that some students use to bolster their arguments that the ANC has failed to keep its promises.

The ANC also vowed to end rural poverty, to eradicate inequality and to reform a shoddy education system, from primary school to university.

South African students are agitating for change through several movements that have taken off on campuses across the country:

• Decolonization of the higher education system. Black and colored students, who are defined as people of mixed races, are demanding a change in emphasis to leading African thinkers and innovators and away from Westerners.

• The 1-in-3 movement, which has brought attention to alarming statistics documenting what the students describe as rape culture on campuses.

• And Worth Bleeding For, a movement calling for free sanitary pads for women and girls, many of whom miss significant class time because they cannot afford to buy what they need during their periods.

Honoring African Heroes

During Apartheid, student populations at South African universities were predominantly white.

Today, black students outnumber their white counterparts at the University of the Witwatersrand, better known as Wits.

But the institution itself–located in downtown Johannesburg–still doesn’t reflect the new generation of students.

The names of white European men grace the facades of most of the buildings on campus. The majority of lecturers also are white males. The curriculum itself is taught through a Western lens, and students complain that they are not offered enough courses on African history and culture.

“The only place I find to be affirmative to who I am is the African literature department,” said Vuyani Pambo, the outgoing chairperson of the EFF party at Wits. “It is in that space where I am beginning to learn and to think.”

Black and colored students want not only a new kind of education that echoes their African roots, but they also want to erase the names of Europeans on university buildings and replace them with people who shaped the narrative of their country.

A decolonization of higher education movement took off in March 2015, when politics student Chumani Maxwele poured a bucket filled with excrement over a statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town. Rhodes was a British businessman who was the main donor of the Rhodes Scholarship at Great Britain’s Oxford University. He also helped colonize South Africa, and he monopolized the country’s diamond industry in the late 19th century. UCT administrators eventually removed the statue.

After the incident at UCT, the #RhodesMustFall movement was born and took off on Twitter.

The movement swept the nation’s universities.

At Wits, students began making similar demands about decolonization of the curriculum and renaming several of the university’s buildings. They want the library and other facilities renamed for African heroes to reflect their history and culture.

In April, the Wits administration approved a proposal by the Student Representative Council to rename its Senate House, an administrative building where students register for classes, after South African political activist Solomon Mahlangu.

Mahlangu was an operative in the ANC’s militant wing who was convicted of murder and violating the Terrorism Act. He was hanged in 1979.

But students and activists say the movement goes deeper than demands for aesthetic changes.

It has evolved into an effort to change the curriculum, who teaches it, and the language in which it is taught.

Some black students complain that they are unfairly penalized for not being able to speak English as well as their white peers.

Students at Wits say they also want to be taught a curriculum that reflects ideas of African scholars and writers.

But some students say they believe changing the curriculum would hinder South African students from competing in an increasingly global economy.

Others argue an Afro-centric education would help boost the national economy by helping more students secure jobs at home.

“I think it has its pros and cons,” said Nicole Morrison, a white Wits student. “People from [South Africa] will feel more included because you can see how having a Western culture and a Western curriculum–it doesn’t really suit everyone’s needs, and having an Afro-centric curriculum helps empower people.”

A Movement Spreads

During Apartheid, black students received inferior education because of the Bantu Education Act, enacted by the white minority-controlled government in 1953.

The law ensured that black South Africans could work only as maids and laborers by limiting their education, banning the teaching of math, science and geography to children.

South African Student RetentionInfographic

The law died with Apartheid, but its effects live on, continuing to hinder black children and college students in their pursuits of better lives.

The country’s education system struggles to properly prepare students for higher education. Those who make it to university are considered the lucky ones. The ones who graduate seem to defy odds.

Adam Habib, vice chancellor at Wits, said that free, quality education is possible, but not in the current political environment.

Nhlapo managed to earn a university degree. But he says he doesn’t know how he did it. He faced so many obstacles that he remains incredulous about his own success. He works for the EFF, a revolutionary socialist political party that formed when former ANC Youth League President Julius Malema and his allies broke away from the ruling party three years ago.

“The promise of democracy is not being met,” Nhlapo said. “There are brilliant minds locked in townships, locked out of the system.”

“As a student in South Africa, you go around campus with an anxiety,” said Pambo, the outgoing EFF leader at Wits. “We are anxious beings. We walk around with a fear that we were born into.”

Pambo also described the guilt that many students experience as they pursue a university education.

“It’s a very very very painful thing when you go home then and you can see that your parents are struggling, that your brothers are struggling, and you want to go further and do a Ph.D.,” he said. “The immediate question is that you must send bread home. How do you continue? You look like a selfish person. So in the process you must then kill your parents … you must kill them in your mind and pursue your goal and hope that what you’re doing is going … to change things.”

Last Oct. 12, student protests broke out on the Wits campus following the university’s announcement about plans to raise fees 10.5 percent in 2016. A handful of students and staff members blocked the main entrance to the university, demanding a zero percent fee increase.

“We need to disrupt the order of things,” Pambo said. “Wits University was never built to liberate the black child. Wits University was built to keep us where we are, to be mere bodies that serve white people. To be waitresses, waiters, to be petro [petroleum] attendants.”

On Oct. 17, after more than a week of protests, Wits administrators agreed to cap the increases at six percent. But students rejected that offer.

Nearly a week later, students marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria—the official seat of the South African government that houses the offices of the nation’s president.

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma responded by going on national television to announce a “zero increase” in university tuition fees for 2016.

The movement turned into what is now known across the world—and especially on social media—as #FeesMustFall.

It has since spread across the country to campuses that include the University of Cape Town, the University of Pretoria and Rhodes University.

The Fees Must Fall movement has developed several offshoots, even as some critics say it is losing steam. The number of protests have dwindled and many students seem to be confused about who is leading the movement.

Some young women say they have been marginalized by men, who only respect male voices.

The students also are divided politically. They are torn by loyalty to the ANC, the party of Mandela beloved by their parents for liberating them, and the upstart EFF, which accuses the older generation of giving away too much to white South Africans. The ANC remains the dominant force in South Africa’s Parliament. But the EFF has won 25 seats in the legislative body.

Leigh-Ann Naidoo, a social and economic researcher at Wits, says she believes the movement has not yet reached its peak.

“What you hope for at the end of the day is that we can all come out of this space where there’s so much [political] difference and that we can all move forward,” said Nompendulo Mkatshwa, president of the Wits Student Representative Council. “If we going to tackle and realize free, quality and equal education, we need to be a united force. Universities know, government knows how fragmented the student movement is right now, and they will thrive and thrash on our divide.”

Mkatshwa criticized the media, blaming it for exaggerating the students’ frustrations by describing it as a movement.

Natasha Joseph, editor of The Conversation, a website that makes academic research more accessible to the public, called mainstream media coverage of Fees Must Fall “shallow.” She said the coverage was superficial and relied too much on pithy soundbites.

“The media was lazy,” Joseph said. ” They didn’t get to know what people were fighting for.”

Fighting ‘Rape Culture’

Several women, some topless, stood in front of the Great Hall at Wits on April 26 to call attention to what they described as rape culture on campuses across the nation.

Using their bodies to display various anti-rape slogans like “still not asking for it” and “my body my choice,” they shared their stories of survival. They sang, danced and cried together–in solidarity with rape survivors at Rhodes University.

As the women shared their stories, they touched on a common theme. They said they want a safe space not only on campus but also in all other aspects of their lives.

Patriarchy is a common theme among young female South Africans. They say they face discrimination and harassment daily in a society dominated by men.

Several young women said the Mandela-led liberation movement mistakenly thought that the fight against racial oppression would also end sexism in South Africa.

Young women on the nation’s college campuses are leading efforts to reverse years of subjugation of their mothers and grandmothers.

The demonstration on the Wits campus trended as #iamoneinthree, referring to a widely cited statistic that one-third of South African women experience sexual violence in their lives.

A week before, a Facebook group called RU Queer Confessions, Questions and Crushes published a list of 11 male students they accused of rape on the campus of Rhodes University.

In publishing the #RUReferenceList on social media, the protesters criticized what they believe is the university’s slow response to cases involving rape and sexual assault.

Rhodes was shut down on April 20. Protesters blocked public roads, and police and security forces resorted to using tear gas and stun grenades.

The protest at Wits was rowdy, but peaceful, as women danced and sang to traditional struggle songs.



Obtaining a quality education is difficult for young women in South Africa, simply because they are female. The average girl misses 60 days of school a year because she is on her period, said Mail & Guardian journalist Pontsho Pilane.

Pilane said poor girls cannot afford sanitary pads and are forced to use sand, leaves and old t-shirt rags to get through the day. And she said 90 percent of obstetricians and gynecologists in South Africa go into the private sector, shunning public hospitals.

“What happens to someone who has … [a] reproductive problem?” she said. “And those people are poor black women. What happens to them?”

Last October, Pilane won a competition to suggest the most pressing social issue in contemporary South Africa. She launched a campaign for free sanitary pads throughout the country. With the help of Livity Africa, the competition’s sponsor, she drafted legislation to propose to Parliament. Her submission should’ve been reviewed in November, but wasn’t, she said. It’s unclear when it will be.

Pilane describes herself as an “unapologetic feminist.” She is a journalist, but she is also an activist. “I’m invested in dismantling the oppressive institutions that exist,” she said. And journalism is her means of doing so.

But Pilane isn’t the only one fighting for free sanitary pads. The Amnesty International chapter at Wits has joined the effort, adopting the same hashtag #WorthBleedingFor.

It is “a response to a Rainbow Nation that in many ways is failing the country’s poor and the country’s dispossessed,” said Raees Noorbhai, chair of Amnesty at Wits.

Amnesty obtained 3,400 signatures on a petition to make sanitary pads free throughout campus, he said.

“This is an act of solidarity,” he said, “standing behind women and standing with women to fight for rights that shouldn’t have been denied to them in the first place.”

WBFArtWebNadia Mansoor, a postgraduate student at Wits and member of Amnesty, said people do not always see the effects of poverty on students.

“There’s the idea that if you go to university, you’re part of the middle class,” she said. “But it’s not the case. You often don’t see the students who are sleeping in the libraries … They end up choosing between buying food and buying pads. It’s not in your face, but it’s definitely there.”

Noorbhai said Amnesty is still waiting on Wits to review its petition.

“There is a bit of tale of two cities on campus. And relatively, campus is a privileged space,” Noorbhai said. “But there are, again, pockets of suffering that have been hidden away for too long.”

The Art of Protest

Visual reminders of student unrest can be found in corners of the Wits campus.

Some students are hanging posters and writing songs to express their demands. Others have painted murals on the walls of a tunnel beneath a highway that splits the downtown Joburg campus.

Kyle Oberholzer graduated from the University of Pretoria in 2015 with a degree in architecture. He participated in the #FeesMustFall march in Pretoria last October while he was still a student.

He is now pursuing a graduate degree in the journalism program at Wits. Oberholzer said he can no longer participate in the protests because of his role as a reporter.

But he says he has taken a special interest in covering parts of the movement. Most recently Oberholzer explored whether a protest song, #FreeRassie, pushed the boundaries of hate speech.

The song was written and performed by two University of Pretoria students to criticize the arrest of 27 students, including former SRC president Rassie Rasethaba, who were protesting under the Afrikaans Must Fall banner.

In the song, students Lethabo Sebetso and Maatla Makgoana lash out at police and lament the “missing middle” in South African society. The Tuks students, as the university is known, complain about the cost of higher education and their difficulties in achieving success.

Young South Africans are blunt about their grievances, and especially about what role, if any, white people should play in the country’s future.

Some, like Pilane, don’t want white people to take active roles in organizing marches or in launching movements. Instead, she said, white people should spend their time eradicating racism in their homes, where it all starts–at the dinner table.

Published May 20, 2016