Protest, Racism and Gender in South Africa

ROAPE speaks to Nombuso Mathibela about student protests, institutional racism and gender in South Africa. Mathibela was involved in the student movement in South Africa in 2015-16 and is Fellow at the Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education working on expanding political education to assist social movements in their struggles.

Can you tell a little about yourself, where you grew up, your involvement in the student struggles in South Africa in recent years?

I grew up in Durban, a coastal city in eastern South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, I lived there for about 13 years and then moved to Johannesburg a landlocked city in the province of Gauteng. When the time came for me to go to university, the first choice was to get out of Johannesburg and I than decided to move to Cape Town in the Western Cape.

Having lived in three historically and culturally different cities that equally have a distinct history of struggle – I began to understand the manifestations of colonial and apartheid rule to play out quite differently. So, in Durban the tensions between the Indian communities (most came to South Africa as indentured labour and some as merchants) and Zulu communities were quite rife at a historical and interpersonal level – old wounds of internal division as a result of colonial wars and apartheid, built up a lot of stereotypes and prejudices within these communities. But at the same time, I saw a lot of solidarity, cultural co-creation amongst these groups of people specifically within the working-class communities. This solidarity took form through trading in the food markets as one example– in fact you could find many working class Indian people speaking isiZulu or dialects – in many ways also defying the spatial separation between Zulu people in the ‘townships’ ‘informal living spaces’ and Indian people who were located in ‘Indian townships’ areas such Phoenix and Chatsworth.  I grew up eating mostly Indian foods and Zulu traditional meals and most of the people I grew up with came from these communities – the tensions were there but some sort of understanding too.

Living in Durban shaped my understanding of race, the dynamics that exist within middle and working-class communities, and I also got to witness the legacy of apartheid, specifically how it highlighted, exaggerated tribal and ethnic difference to the demise of oppressed people. This, then contextualised my experience of Cape Town, a city that reeks of dispossession and hectic spatial inequality of racial and class lines. In some ways the relationship between ‘black’ and ‘coloured’ people reminded me of my experiences in Durban and helped me adjust to the political climate that I found in the city. My early years of university were quite politically different, the traditional structural formation of party-aligned student organisations dominated quite clearly i.e. SASCO, PASMA and DASO, which are student organisations that are aligned and affiliated to the ruling party the ANC and its opposition parties. Student protests in South Africa were already taking place way before the MustFall movement(s) in 2015, through party aligned organisation and other student formations were also rallying under Black consciousness and Black feminism. But my critical involvement at a collective organised level, came into being in 2015 when students formed the RhodeMustFall movement.

Can you discuss how you became involved in the protests in South Africa, what were the major issues and how did these develop?

My experiences in Cape Town were largely shaped by my outsider status as someone who came to study at one of the whitest universities on the continent. It took a while to actually understand Cape Town outside of the university and part of this I am indebted to the student movement, the people I met in this space and the political formations that were made on the basis of collective recognition that there is something wrong with the University of Cape Town (UCT), with the city and quite frankly South Africa as a whole.

This collective recognition, from my understanding was the key catalyst in the formation of what then became the MustFall Movement(s). People were no longer suffering in silos or agitating against power at an interpersonal level but there was a recognition that the crisis in legal education for instance is a broader crisis of pedagogy and an institutional culture that exists across South Africa,. It doesn’t only concern the realities of knowledge production of the historically dispossessed and oppressed.

So, I suppose I was one of those students who felt they did not belong in the university and the struggles of other black students were quite personal. My involvement in the student movement sort of came from that place – a place of needing to deal with historical injustice, current manifestations of anti-blackness – be it the curriculum, the financial exclusion of black students, the exploitation of outsourced workers and the patriarchal nature of the university.

Like many black student activists at UCT during the time of #RhodesMustFall (RMF), I was involved in supporting the struggles of the movement right through to the formation of the #feesmustfall and #endoutsourcing movements. Most of my involvement subsequently moved towards a law faculty based movement that students had formed called DecoloniseUCTLaw, which came out of the need to branch out; RMF couldn’t deal with all the demands and some could be achieved at a faculty level. Hence, we saw the formation of other faculty-based movements although not all explicitly RMF aligned.

The initial outburst of the ‘fallist’ movement was unfortunately understood as primarily an obsession to remove the statue of a European settler and coloniser Cecil John Rhodes, situated at UCT overlooking the city. But as many people have clarified, the demands were much broader, and the statue was simply a symbolic catalyst for us to talk about historical justice, the eurocentricity of curriculum, the racist and alienating institutional culture, the mentally destructive space of UCT, the financial exclusion of black students and exploitation of workers with undignified wages.

With the uprising of students around South African universities the demands began to take a national front were the main demands basically centered around free education and the end to outsourcing. These were two issues that all campus could rally behind and in fact many people saw the reformation of the student-worker coalition as an important step towards contesting the current democratic dispensation – moving the issues outside of our individual campuses and putting forward these two issues as a national crisis.

To start with in 2015, the protest wave at South African universities raised questions of student fee increments, but rapidly seemed to develop into a more generalised movement that targeted the nature of the 1994 settlement. Reflecting on your direct involvement in these struggles how would you chart the rapid growth of the movement in 2015 and afterwards?

The movement(s) move towards critiquing the 1994 settlement began long before the RhodesMustFall movement or the subsequent FeesMustFall movement(s), many of the student groups and political blocs that came to form these movements were already calling the 1994 settlement into question. In fact, these groups infused this critique into the 2015 movements and the response was quite organic because their articulations aligned with the sentiments that students held with regards to the current state of South Africa. The radical call for free education from some groups instead of ‘no fee increment’ was in fact a response to the 1994 settlement – because some of us saw this demand as a way of restructuring the nature education and its institutions as a whole. That said, I think the rapid growth was largely due to the formation of the student worker coalition. The involvement of workers totally changed the dynamics of protest intervention and strikes, before then students were protesting alone; because of the precarious nature of workers’ jobs most of the time the strategy revolved around students having to shut down campus and dining halls on their own – through that intervention workers would then be ‘released’. We all know that these universities cannot function without workers so the FeesMustFall movement became much stronger through this coalition.

Students and workers realized that their temporary power was in their combined numbers and their ability to stop the functioning of the university – so there were many attempts to build this coalition though it was harder in some campuses because of stifling trade union involvement, the levels of securitization from the side of the university and the state became unbearable.  Unfortunately, at a collective national level there was no consolidated national programme. Therefore, in most cases insourcing of workers was partially won in some campuses, and in some of those campuses this victory came with a lot of punishment – through the retrenchment of many workers to ‘compensate’ for the so-called ‘end to outsourcing.’ At the moment we still have workers who have been dismissed at the University of Stellenbosh, University of Western Cape, Cape Peninsula University of Technology and other universities across the country are having difficulties with insourcing.

As the movement grew, and drew in wider layers of students, lecturers and workers, other issues were raised. These included questions of continued ‘colonial’ control of the university curriculum, the continued public symbols of the previous racist state and the failure of real and lasting transformation for the majority of black South Africans. What today are the major issues confronting the movement and students?

When RhodesMustFall formed, the movement took on a flat structure and it was known as a ‘leaderless’ movement, which is complicated in itself because ultimately there were people who formed some sort of leadership structure invisible or not. So, when the FeesMustFall movements formed they sort of took on this structure but in some campuses there was a more defined leadership structure – some political party affiliated and in many ways this became one of the major issues confronting the movement. There’s no consolidated national student movement but simply pockets of students organising under FeesMustFall. The movement has no membership, students move in and out of it, there is no organisational structure and because of the political and personal differences it has become increasingly difficult to hold national or even regional meetings to chart a way forward or a programme of how students are going to build a mass movement for free education, get the buy-in of parents, civil organisations, workers etc. The power dynamics internally have become one of the stifling blocs for the student movement. This is merely one aspect that has really troubled quite a few of us because it has made it quite difficult to assist students – so a lot of people are sort of picking areas were they think they can assist in corners but there is not a consolidated voice that I am aware of even though there are many people working in the background in many campuses.

How have issues of sexism within wider society and inside the movement played out during this period of activism?

Patriarchy and deep manifestations of sexism broke down FeesMustFall’s momentum, in as much as movements like RhodesMustFall initially took up intersectionality as an organising theory, the persistence of specific hyper masculinities made it quite difficult for bodies existing outside of those masculinities to find expression. Many black womxn found it really difficult to organise within these movements but perhaps the groups that found it most difficult were the queer community and non-binary bodies. Many people felt that the space was extremely patriarchal and that it centered the voices and expressions of male figures. The division of labour within the movement was quite contested, who does what – when it came to speaking out in plenary session (meeting), who are the dominant voices, when students are in the middle of action who are the people on the ground leading the programme of action, who writes statements and sits in meetings with management, and who can publicly speak about the movement – all of this was contested. And remains contested. That said, the worst aspects that made it very difficult to organise is the insidious culture of sexual violence within the student movement, this was a problem throughout the country; students at a university currently known as Rhodes (UCKAR), black women and non-binary people came out in full force launching a protest campaign called the #Rureferencelist, which literally revealed the rot of our university space and movements. All of this is happening in country that has one of the most debilitating statistics of gender-based violence, so what is happening in our movements and the university is merely a reflection of very real national crisis.

Thinking back on the #RhodesMustFall era, a slogan that went around ‘Dear history/ this revolution has women, gays, queers & trans people – remember that’ – I think students were invoking the theory of intersectionality, that as black bodies we also exist in different spaces and hold other identities that are the cause of experiencing violence. There were attempts at the time to center these voices and for quite some time there was a power shift and quite a solid base of black queer women and trans people exercising power within the movement – however short lived. What intersectionality did was allow ‘functional discomfort’ within the movement and make room for people to contest the direction of the movement – its strategies and tactics and the nature of demands that were being put forward above others. I don’t think #RhodesMustFall or subsequently FeesMustFall succeeded in dealing with patriarchy and its manifestations nor is this surprising because these movements are a manifestation and a reflection of society as it is, but some hard lessons came out of this experience for many people about organising.

What, would you say – and in your experience – are the main challenges for the development of a progressive, non-sexist politics in South Africa?

I think the answer is both simple and complicated but for me – a politics that seeks to destroy gender as an oppressive organising principle is the aspiration under different circumstances. It’s quite true that many men are among the stifling factor in the quest to build a non-sexist politics because the current politics is premised on the domination of specific gendered bodies at the level of politics. The levels at which black women and non-binary people experience violence has necesitated a politics that centers gender and queer theory and practice simply because the culture of marginalisation is so rife. South Africa’s history of struggle is loaded with similar issues of patriarchy, sexism and sexual violence – the collective sidelining of black women and non-binary people is not a new phenomenon nor is it particular to South African history.

That is part of the challenge, that patriarchy and manifestations of sexist behavior have been able to mutate at different levels of struggle – the scary part is that many people want to particularise these challenges to current movements and not look outside – that in itself is a challenge. This is a big question and I think people need to come together and think about these challenges , because of the nature of capitalism and colonialism it is that working class and black people in particular are impacted by different forms of oppression in a more accute way. These groups must be at the forefront of determining what way we move forward – in a sense that is a prerequisite and its something that cannot be solved by one person, it will have to be solved by a movement.

Nombuso Mathibela is a Fellow at Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education, and was involved in the student movement in South Africa, her current work is around expanding political education for the purposes of assisting social movements in their struggles.  

All photographs in the interview have been provided by Nombuso Mathibela.


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