Revolution Watch

It’s not a tantrum – don’t misjudge student protests

Mmusi Maimane – opportunism won’t do
Mmusi Maimane.jpg

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande’s declaration that the nationwide student protests do not constitute a crisis is a serious miscalculation, but he is not the only one reading the signs wrong.

Minister Nzimande would do well to have a look at the history of the worldwide student uprisings of the 1960s, which peaked in 1968 in France.

In his New Year's Eve message of 1967 to the French nation the then 78-year-old president Charles De Gaulle confidently declared that he was greeting 1968 with “serenity”, and said: “It is impossible to see how France today could be paralysed by crises as she has been in the past.”

Little less than six months later, De Gaulle was fighting for his political life and the French capital was paralysed after weeks of student riots.

What is now happening at campuses across the country around university fees also places the #RhodesMustFall protests in March this year in perspective. As happened with the 1960s student unrest, which started off as protest against the war in Vietnam, the present protests seem to morph from one issue to the next, and sometimes from location to location.

International perspective

While it would seem as if South African students are involved in some kind of a collective youth tantrum, it is important to take note that the phenomenon is, as was the case in the 1960s, a global one.

In what is predominantly a photo essay, published in The Atlantic on 11 August this year under the title Student Protests Around the World, not only a picture of the #RhodesMustFall protests at the University of Cape Town, was featured, but also of:

  • Student protesters in Santiago demanding changes to Chile’s education system;
  • An Al-Azhar University student, member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and supporter of the ousted Egyptian President, Mohamed Morsi, protesting against the country’s military and interior ministry;  
  • A student demonstrator taking part in a march in Mexico City to mark the 10-month anniversary of the disappearance of 43 teachers-in-training who were abducted and reportedly murdered by a drug gang working with corrupt police;
  • Student activists at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, staging a ‘die-in’ last December as part of the nationwide “Hands Up, Walk Out” protests, demanding justice for the fatal shooting of the 18-year-old Michael Brown;
  • Students chanting anti-government slogans during a rally in central Athens, protesting changes to Greece’s high-school exam system;  
  • Students attending a protest in Santiago to demand changes to the Chilean education system;  
  • A student lighting fireworks amid clashes with riot policemen in La Paz, Colombia, during demonstrations protesting the industrialisation of the region;  
  • Students and police officers pushing each other In Yangon, Myanmar, during protests against the appointment of military representatives to the country’s parliament;  
  • Pakistani Shi'ite supporters of the Imamia Students Organisation (ISO) holding signs and chanting slogans during an anti-Israel and anti-U.S. rally in Karachi, Pakistan; and
  • An Indonesian student holding a poster of the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a protest in front of the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta against what they said was the killing of Muslims in Myanmar.

The issues differ from country to country, but the question is raised of whether there are underlying factors, which from time to time result in worldwide seasons of ‘youth revolt’.

There are also sometimes overlaps and similarities. In March this year, similar to what is presently happening in South Africa, there were student protests at the University of the Arts, London, against proposed cuts to some of its course programmes. And often a key issue is the commercialisation of higher education, which many feel has led university leaders to prioritise financial goals over the needs of staff and students.

It remains a challenge to identify similarities, to develop a better understanding of the phenomenon and to develop strategies to manage it.

Political opportunism

In the South African environment one has in recent times seen plenty examples of political opportunists attempting to cash in on the situation, revealing misjudgements of what it is all really about.

These political roleplayers attempting to jump onto the bandwagon, range from the Inkatha Freedom Party’s Youth Brigade to the Young Communist League, the official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), the governing African National Congress and its MEC for Education in Gauteng, Panyaza Lesufi, and a number of other lesser players in between.

The fact that the student protests are not open to political manipulation, as well as of how opportunism can backfire, is well illustrated by what happened to DA leader Mmusi Maimane last week at the University of Cape Town. When he turned up at the demonstrations in an attempt to cash in on the situation, he was booed and chased away.

The one potential real ‘partner’ of the students to watch is the labour movement, where both the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) and former COSATU general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, have declared their solidarity with the students.

In this regard it is also important to take note of a statement put out by the National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (NEHAWU) in which it, amongst other, declare: They (government) should focus on the pressing issues raised by the student-worker alliance.” (Our emphasis.)

In 1968 France was brought to the verge of a revolution when, after weeks of student riots, trade unions imposed a general strike.


There are clearly deeper issues at work in the present situation than the shifting set of focus areas of the protests and neither kneejerk reactions like Minister Nzimande proposing a 6% cap on fee increases, nor opportunistic political rhetoric or action can get a handle on it.

Sabine Matsheka might be right in writing in the Daily Maverick that “today’s student activism is an inevitable product of malcontent fuelled by an incremental sense of dissatisfaction and disappointment in leadership.”

But even that might constitute an oversimplification of the situation. In his work One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse wrote: “We are confronted with one of the most vexing aspects of advanced industrial civilization: … The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment. The very mechanism which ties the individual to his society has changed, and social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced.”

As we are living a new industrial revolution there seems to be at the same time, as happened often before in history, a generational change of the guard taking place.

Psychologists of the late 1960s attributed the then student protest movement to something which Eric Erikson identified as an identity crisis. Most were trying to find themselves. They were trying to create a unique identity for themselves and others like themselves. The only way they could do this, was to rebel against everything that mainstream society had deemed holy.

In the South African context the ‘born frees’ are moving into mainstream society. They do not share the liberation struggle identity of the present leadership, nor that of the captains of industry who built a consumer economy, nor of the middle class who lived under the cloud of the Cold War.

While this generation of the globalised world, with its new communication networks and social media platforms, is in the process of defining and putting in place its own points of reference, society has to come to terms with the turbulence that comes with it.

The challenge to the leaders of the day is to manage this process and recognise the complexity of it all. If they don’t, the transition from one generation to the next could just morph into a full-blooded revolution.


Also read: You can’t make this up, by Ryk van Niekerk on Moneyweb

by Piet Coetzer

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