“This has been an epic period in our history,” said Susan Levine of the School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of Cape Town. “The movement is helping us to rethink the historical and political struggles between student activism versus the Rainbow Nation, nationalism, democracy and the role of the ‘born frees’. Young people are recognising and seeing beyond their own privilege. It’s a serious awakening.”
In the first part of a two-part seminar, Levine sketched a brief overview of student resistance to colonial and apartheid-era education structures in South Africa and the rise of the Fallist movement. In the second part Vivienne Bozalek, Director of Teaching and Learning at the University of the Western Cape, looked at some possible responses namely the development of ‘response-able’ pedagogy across higher education institutions in post-apartheid South Africa by presenting details of an inter-institutional course collaboratively designed across three disciplines and two universities.
“Starting in 2015 and following on the heels of the Marikana massacre, students in higher education effectively waged a campaign at the University of Cape Town to have a statue of Cecil Rhodes removed from the heart of its campus,” said Levine. “This led to a national wave of student protests, in which they achieved what no other generation had managed, which was to mobilise for free education on the basis of need for a new generation of African scholars.”
“I believe Marikana and this are significant turning points in our history,” she continued.
“#RhodesMustFall represented the student response to colonial forces – one response, one answer. It made us think through the importance of decolonial studies, transformation and education.”
Levine traced the long history of student protest in South Africa highlighting the 1953 Bantu Education Act, the creation of the so-called ‘Bush Colleges’ in 1959 “created to educate black people without arousing their expectations”, the 1974 protests at the University of the North – now Limpopo “where Chikane, Ramaphosa and Malema all studied” and, “of course, the Soweto uprising of 1976 which heralded the emergence of schoolchildren into political activities”.
“The traces of these events and others are not as faint as we might think,” she said.
“In March 2015 students initially defiled the statue of Rhodes at UCT. The use of human waste as protest had become known in service-delivery protests in the Western Cape. It was a powerful device signifying the ongoing devaluation and debasement of human life, the divisions of privilege in the country and the zones of abandonment.”
“Rhodes was targeted as the symbol of colonial domination and the removal of his statue spearheaded a larger project – the ‘fallist’ movement. It struck a chord nationally and also internationally – linking to movements like Black Lives Matter in the US.”
“But the movement was fragmented, fractured and unsettled,” she said. “For example, other activist groups including LGBTI activists felt undermined and silenced – so there was a fascinating layering of the response.”
“Of course, it all connects with our deeper, longer history of the struggles around the different ideologies underpinning South African history. These events, to some extent, exposed the façade of the Rainbow Nation and some of the compromises that had been made in the name of peace and reconciliation. Student activists such as Rekgotsofetse Chikane argue that Steve Biko and Chris Hani, for example, wanted a much more radical revolution, but both were killed. Chikane, in his book Breaking a Rainbow, Building a Nation traces the history of how so-called ‘Charterists’ – those who believed in the Freedom Charter and the idea that South Africa belongs to all who live here – took over from the more radical ideas associated with Black Consciousness and Pan Africanism.”
“The Fallist movement led to a deep questioning of how we teach. What, when and, even if, we teach. I believe that developing new curricula is a reckoning with our history.”
“I would like to understand how these movements, and where the years of university closures, unrest, discontent, and hope have taken us. Importantly, I would like to ask what – after everything has fallen – might rise?”
Developing ‘response-able’ pedagogy
Turning to developments in this area, Bozalek focused on a course conceptualised and implemented from 2006-2012 by educators “who wished to address the issue of mono-cultural institutions in South Africa by bringing together students and teachers across disciplines and institutions”.
“The course was run between two very different institutions – the University of the Western Cape – one of the original Bush Colleges and Stellenbosch University – a bastion of white privilege.”
“The challenge was to design a curriculum incorporating educational practices that would support transformative social agendas within the limiting structures of post-apartheid South Africa,” said Bozalek.
“I have been examining how students engaged with the course from a perspective that I refer to as ‘response-able’ pedagogies. This notion has been written about by scholars such as Barad, Haraway and Despret and, generally speaking, refers to the ability or capacity to respond. It encompasses ideas of responsiveness, cultivating collective knowing and being, and rendering each other capable. The ability to respond is not only seen as human but also as a relational capacity by which humans are co-constituted through their relationships. A relational ontology, on which response-ability is based, holds that individuals do not pre-exist their relationships – they come into being and are rendered capable through multidirectional relationships.”
“It’s about being open to what is and what is not being expressed, open to being affected by another, cultivating curiosity, embracing differences and enlarging the competencies of all players,” she continued.
“The course aimed to cut across disciplinary, class and racial divisions. It used participative learning and action techniques to allow a rethinking of notions of community, self and identity.”
“The students came to a greater realisation of themselves. It provided an opportunity to disrupt boundaried notions of themselves and recognise the impact of politics and history which they didn’t necessarily know about at the start.”
Complex arenas and challenges
In discussion, the two speakers addressed issues of education funding, the broader education sector and the role of the state.
“There is no question that funding policies have maintained the inequalities in education,” said Bozalek. “There have been some changes to the higher education model but not enough to make the inequalities go away. It’s not only funding but also how the state values higher education – there are some incentives available to get students into under-served areas like teaching but education generally is undervalued.”
“The education system is still privilege and income based with different trajectories based on class and race,” she continued. “The movement has exposed unethical institutional practices.”
“There are also very practical issues. The previously disadvantaged institutions remain essentially black with institutional and personal funding and resource challenges. For example, 70% of students at my own institution are food insecure. If this is not addressed, the problems will continue.”
“By contrast education is highly valued by young people,” said Levine. “It’s seen as the pathway to a better life.”
“The challenges begin from primary school,” she continued. “There is an alarming disjuncture in the education landscapes of young people and an uneven potential for imagining.”
“The state has been complicit in creating the conditions,” she added. “The state has failed to imagine what the higher education landscape could and should be. There has also been a lack of will of academics to take on the state.”
“But, at the same time, we must acknowledge that it’s been a difficult time to be in university management,” added Bozalek. “Many people turned against them despite their activist pasts.”
Both speakers referred to the huge academic outputs about the period – 25 books, four films, one play – and the need to ensure the student voice in these.
“If the students aren’t talking – it’s still just the elite talking to the elite,” said Bozalek. “Students must be seen as knowledge producers – this must be inculcated into the academic project.”
“Student involvement is essential to push the agenda forward,” added Levine. “For example, the students have introduced new ways to teach and learn in gender studies at UCT – they rewrote the curriculum.”
“I think it’s critical to realise we wouldn’t be here without our very particular history,” she continued. “#RhodesMustFall can be seen as either a continuation of history or a rupture. But we have taken the first steps on a very long journey.”
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw