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Learning from South Africa’s Student Uprising

“Direct Action Signals People Are Still Willing to Fight,” says Moshibudi Motimele of the #feesmustfall movement.

Jesse Rubin Mar 14

In 2015, the #feesmustfall movement galvanized students across South Africa’s universities. Begun in simple protest against the rising costs of education in the country, the movement came to encompass a broad coalition aiming to address lingering injustices from the apartheid era and to shift university education focus from a primarily Western, post-colonial ethos to one that meets the needs of working class and black South Africans.

The neoliberal assault on public higher education is not unique to South Africa. Earlier this month, Moshibudi Motimele, a student activist and #feesmustfall representative joined a two-day conference on “Global Resistance in the Neoliberal University” hosted by the Professional Staff Congress, the union that represents 27,000 full and part-time faculty and professional staff at the City University of New York (CUNY).

Motimele, a doctoral student at the University of Witwatersrand and a lecturer at the University of Johannesburg, later spoke with The Indypendent. During our conversation she reflected on what it means to challenge capitalism in the university system, lessons that CUNY students and faculty can learn from South Africa and what it means to achieve a decolonized university.

The Indypendent: How did your involvement in the #feesmustfall campaign begin and how successful do you think the movement has been?

Moshibudi Motimele: I got involved in #feesmustfall because when it started as a national movement, it was born out of things we’d been doing at the university for awhile, just under a different name. For instance, the fight for workers’ rights has been happening on campus for years, the fight against fee increments has been happening for years, issues against racism within the university have been happening for years. What #feesmustfall did was unite all these small pockets of resistance into this big umbrella movement across the country. That got the attention of the government and university management.

You’re here in New York to participate in discussions about how students can challenge tuition hikes, and broadly, neoliberal policies of universities. What are some of the lessons you would impart to the upwards of half a million students at the City University of New York?

The name of the conference was “Global Resistance in the Neoliberal University” and I think that’s important, because one of the lessons we’ve had to learn as student activists was to be careful what we pinpoint as our enemy.

The more you have an understanding of why university education has become commodified and what defines its relationship with the state, the more you have a comprehensive critique of what’s at stake. I think the biggest lesson is not to fall into the trap of defining a sole enemy — whether the chancellor, the university or racism — but understanding how all these institutions and different actors play a role in the overall problem.

So broader intersectionality is necessary?

It can’t be a university issue without being a South African issue; it can’t be an issue about fees without being a critique of capitalism; it can’t be a dissatisfaction with the racism of the academics without understanding apartheid’s legacy in terms of inequitable levels of education and the lack of representation of black academics; you can’t understand why we don’t have women academics if there is not critique of patriarchy. You have to understand this entire matrix and how all of these things come together and build your critique on that basis. Otherwise, the demands are simple and easy to placate without dealing with the greater social injustice.

You spoke on a panel called “The South African Movement for a Free Decolonized University.” It seems less focus on the West is central to the achievement of a decolonized university. What can we, in the “West”, learn from your struggles in South Africa regarding changes to a curriculum so that it better reflects the diversity of our student bodies?

In South Africa we have a terrible secondary education system and therefore people start their first year of University at completely different levels. So decolonizing the curriculum also has to consider the pedagogical techniques we use that alienate the majority of our students because they don’t have the level of skills that we expect them to have. English isn’t their first language, it’s not their second, for some it’s just a foreign language that they have to use. In terms of language, how then do we make the classroom a space that is conducive to learning for these students?

How do we enable then, particularly in South Africa, a poor black child who is completely alienated by every element of the institution a chance to actually get through the university system? How do we set her or him up not to fail?

The aim of decolonizing the curriculum is to displace hegemonic notions wherever they are and acknowledge indigenous forms of knowledge, which I think you can do even here within the United States. It’s about acknowledging the types of knowledge we have already in South Africa and elsewhere, and having them speak in conversation with comparative context.

It has been said that South Africa is more unequal now than under apartheid. In many ways, the US is more unequal now than it has been in recent memory, especially along racial and economic lines. How are these realities changed by making education accessible and affordable?

Greater access to the university in terms of being able to create more laborers — a greater workforce for capitalism — that’s not going to solve the problem of inequality. The way I like to mention the university is that at every point in history, the university has been used to justify the social context. So during apartheid, there were professors who made intellectual arguments for it. If you look at everything in the world right now, universities are the knowledge centers that house experts who justify all these policies and situations that we face.

So the university can be used to justify the status quo or to create some sort of acknowledgement of social inequality and redistribution. It’s a space where we can think of new alternatives outside of the dominant ones. It’s a space you aren’t tied to by labor. Instead of waking up and going to work, you actually have a space to think. People need to be able to imagine different realities for what the world can look like and that’s not going to happen in an 8 to 5 job.

Recent student protests in South Africa faced incredible police and militarized pushback. Why do university administrations feel so threatened by student demands to education?

The call for free education is a call to the state, not to the university. So the state’s interest is clearly defined when they deploy police on campuses, because they have no intention of granting that demand and they also have no intention of allowing students the space in which the call for that demand can spread.

They’ve completely cut down the space for students to just meet and talk about anything. When students have space and time to think collectively, their critique of the university and the state deepens and their demands deepen. When the protests started, students were just demanding that the fees don’t go up as they do every year.

But through occupation, through thinking and talking collectively and through deepening the critique, the call then became for free education. Then through further collective thinking it became for free, decolonized education. And so at each point they’ve seen how actually having students who think — which is what you’d think you’d want at a university — becomes dangerous for the interests of the state.

How important is the role of direct action in progress?

When you have a lot of state and police repression, it’s easy for people to become unmotivated or to feel like there’s no hope. And I’ve found that direct action signals to people who have lost hope that there are people out there who are still willing to fight. So you kind of revive the spirit of resistance, which is really important.

Our struggle involves more than protests and strikes — writing petitions, seeking legal remedies, there’s so many different aspects of resistance and I think each plays a really important role. If we look at apartheid in South Africa, international solidarity was just as important as the protests in the streets, all the legal cases were just as important as the boycott campaigns. It all comes together and works in the end.


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