A hopeful tale of student activism and citizenship in South Africa

by Nuraan Davids

Nuraan Davids is a Professor of Philosophy of Education in the Department of Education Policy Studies in the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University. Her research interests include democratic citizenship education; Islamic philosophy of education; and philosophy of higher education.  Recent books include: The Thinking University Expanded: On Profanation, Play and Education (2020, with Y. Waghid) New York & London: Routledge; Democratic Education and Muslim Philosophy: Interfacing Muslim and communitarian thought (2020, with Y. Waghid) New York & London: Palgrave MacMillan;  Universities, pedagogical encounters, openness, and free speech: Reconfiguring democratic education (2019, with Y. Waghid) Lanham, MD (US): Rowman & Littlefield – Lexington Series.

While post-apartheid South Africa has taken great strides in political and social reform, the twin forces of immense historical inequity, and deficient political will continue to hamper the depth of educational reform still required. Central to this hampering is a shallow understanding of transformation – one which continues to confuse transformation with external representation. South African universities, for example, have seen a significant surge in the number of student enrolments from historically marginalised communities. This massification is perceived as critical to the democratisation and diversification of higher education, and hence to society. Yet, as is evident by the persistent drum of student protests, external access has done little to address the increasing concerns about academic alienation, institutional non-belonging, and redressing social and economic inequalities.

The most recent spate of student protests, which saw the coining of the #rhodesmustfall and #feesmustfall campaigns cannot be understood in isolation of South Africa’s colonialist and apartheid history. It is, as many would agree, a mere continuation of the broken discourse between students and the government. The only difference this time round is a democratic context, led by the same government, who previously benefitted from the very kinds of student activism, which they now seek to quell. So, what is actually going on here, you might ask? What drives students, in a time of democracy, to shut down universities through sweeping waves of protest action, which, at times, have degenerated into disturbing displays of wanton violence, vandalism, and hate speech? There are no easy answers to these questions – suffice to say that the successful demand for the removal of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes from the University of Cape Town has very little to do with this symbol, or any other piece of artefact, which was also confiscated as the protest action gained momentum.

It has to do with what it means to be a citizen – to experience rights, regard and a sense of belonging. It has to do with finding points of resonance and recognition – whether in university curricula, architecture, language, or an affirmation of human dignity. Although not unique to a South African context, one of the defining features of student activism is its political embeddedness, and hence attachment to broader societal (in)justices. Student activism was centrally located in the struggle against apartheid. It was impossible to separate the demands for an equal education from the demands for a society free of oppression. The role of students in realising the eventual demise of apartheid is a critical one, and so, too, is their witnessing and participation in its heart-wrenching violence. Seemingly, the residual effects of this violence continue to lurk in South Africa’s democracy – among its students and its citizens. But then, of course, as does the economic disenfranchisement, poverty, hardship, and despair of the majority of its historically marginalised people. The result: while much has changed, much has remained the same. The end of apartheid has not yielded the kinds of social justice reforms and benefits, as, no doubt, were expected.  Notions of citizenship, and its assumed benefits, are not less fractured than what they were during apartheid. For students, the promise of equal access to higher education, continues to be hindered not only by financial barriers, but by societal and social impediments, which they interpret as counter-intuitive to being citizens of a democratic society. As a result, when students protest they easily slip into the protests of violence – akin to that which eventually overthrew apartheid – because they understand violence as a justifiable response to what they perceive as their ongoing oppression and marginalisation.

How can this broken discourse be repaired? What needs to happen to restore student activism to its rightful place as an active form of citizenship in a democracy? Again – there are no easy answers here. It does seem evident, however, that if the state wishes to democratise universities, then this has to be done through much more than massification. Students have voices; these voices cannot be dismissed.  Higher education, as Giroux and Samalavicius (2016) remind us, is not simply about educating young people to be smart, socially responsible and adequately prepared for whatever notions of the future they can imagine; higher education is central to democracy itself.  In order for students to know how to be in a democracy, they have to socialised into such practices. The kinds of citizenship to which students are subjected at a university will shape and define not only their own interpretations of citizenship, but how they engage with a university in that democracy. Deploying increased security measures, which control access to university campuses and buildings, or refusing to engage with student leaders, are neither helpful to universities nor a democracy. In fact, as measures reminiscent of the kinds of tactics employed by the apartheid state, it would not be unreasonable for the democratic state simply to know and do better.

A democracy needs active and engaged forms of citizenship; it needs a citizenship of outspokenness and courage. This is where student activism starts and thrives. Students have to witness and experience that their right to a voice, and their propensity for activism are seen as legitimate forms of democratic action; that they have both the right and responsibility to question hegemonies of power. South Africa’s particular history of first colonialism, followed by apartheid makes for a particularly painful and suspicious past. But its history also allows for certain understandings, experiences and empathies, which otherwise might not have occurred. There are certain things we must be able to learn from the suffering of others. Among these is a profound understanding of being recognised as human beings, of being afforded human dignity, and being treated in an equal and just manner. When one strips away the slogans and hashtags of student protests, the appeals for decolonised university spaces, and free higher education, there is a very simple appeal for a society of social justice – where all people are seen and heard, and where all people can begin to exist in mutual regard, and mutual hope.


Giroux, H.A. & Samalavicius, A., 2016, Higher education and neoliberal temptation: A conversation with Henry Giroux, viewed 15 June 2016, from http://www.eurozine. com/articles/2016-05-04-giroux-en.html