South Africa is in the midst—some would say the very incipient stage—of a major political and cultural revolt. One of the most remarkable things about this movement is that young people, mostly university students, are leading it. I call them Nelson Mandela’s grandchildren, but the nature and context of their ongoing struggle render that designation highly vexatious.
For several years, students at South Africa’s historically black universities had protested two paradoxes within their country’s academic institutions. One had to do with the fact that Caucasian academics dominated the personnel at these universities, and determined the course and content of knowledge production. The second was that, more than two decades after the ostensible vanquishing of ideological apartheid, the curricula across academia retained an extremely European focus.
These students would not stand for a situation where Africa remained terribly marginal, a tokenist presence that was allowed, on occasion, to cast feeble shadow on South Africa’s deeply Euro-centric discourses. And to the extent that Africa “disturbed” the country’s intellectual foundation and enterprise, that gesture was mediated by white administrators and calibrated by a parsimonious mindset. Protesting South African students accused the administrative gatekeepers of perpetuating a species of academic apartheid, one that fostered a white and whitening template, reproducing patterns of inequalities that were the bedrock of the country’s troubled racist history. The protesters’ rallying cry was a decolonized educational system.
I had followed the convulsion from a distance. As long as the students operated within spaces designated historically black institutions, their struggle had limited resonance within South Africa itself and hardly registered outside it.
A sort of turning point came in April 2015 when students at the University of Cape Town mobilized (in what became known as “Rhodes must fall”) to demand that a statue of Cecil Rhodes be removed from their campus. Rhodes was a towering figure in the violent history of South Africa’s imperial subjugation. A fervent espouser of the doctrine of Caucasians’ superiority, he regarded Africans as “barbarians” and professed imperial conquest as a historic duty. He grafted this supremacist ideology into ruthless mercantilist practice, accumulating a dizzying fortune. Rhodes earned his place—at the cost of multitudes of African lives—as a colossus of conquest, a heroic figure in Europe’s violation of African humanity.
It was no surprise that students set on decolonizing South Africa’s education would make Rhodes a target of their struggle. A few weeks into the students’ protests, the authorities at UCT removed the statue. But that act—the erasure of Rhodes’ statue—proved merely symbolic, hardly substantive enough to pacify the students. They realize, these students, that Rhodes’ statue may be gone from the UCT space, but Rhodes and the kind of exploitative history he helped produce still dominate, shape and haunt the country’s epistemic spaces and practices. That has spurred students to insist on a more thorough scrubbing, to demand a revolutionary resetting of the country’s academic system.
That cause is at the center of South Africa’s current concerns. Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a modest way in that inescapable, vital conversation. I traveled to South Africa to speak at a conference at Rhodes University in Grahamstown—one of the flashpoints of the struggle—and to give a reading at a bookstore in Johannesburg. The Rhodes event, whose theme was “Transformation of Higher Education and the Formation of Canon in African Philosophy and African Literature,” was inspired by that struggle.
My weeklong visit enabled me to listen, to observe and to be educated about an utterly fascinating, Fanonian struggle. It is nothing short of inspiring to encounter young men and women who have discovered their mission—the decolonization of pedagogical spaces and practices—and seem determined to serve it.
I felt the temperature of South Africa’s gathering movement. The struggle appears to have arisen from a sense among young people that their country’s formal renunciation of apartheid had yielded little concrete change. One young writer remarked the undeniable: that economic power remains in the hands—or pockets—of the country’s minority whites, approximately nine percent of the country’s population.
The catechism of separateness that was once a matter of legislative warrant has morphed into a separateness dictated by enduring, even exacerbated, economic inequalities and a memory of the years of violent bifurcation. I walked past several upscale restaurants in Johannesburg where the patrons were near-exclusively white.
Another young writer told me that many young black professionals who moved to Cape Town had found the city too inhospitable, almost like a harsh suburb of Europe. “Forget it, Cape Town is not even in South Africa,” he said. The same writer pointed out that, years after South Africa supposedly entered a “post-apartheid” era, most black people remain squatters in land that was snatched from them.
My title referred to Mandela’s grandchildren. Many of young activists would disavow that lineage. Fed on the orthodox narrative of Mandela as a hero, I caught myself cringing as the youngsters minimized or disparaged the late icon. “What Mandela did was reconcile us to the status quo,” one of the students at the Rhodes conference told me. Many of today’s activists seem more deeply inspired by the radical, uncompromising spirit of Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).
In Johannesburg I realized that it was not necessarily that today’s activists regard Mandela as a sellout. It’s more a suspicion of a certain bourgeois conception of history. The activists are at war with the whole idea of reducing a whole struggle to a single name, however magnetic Mandela’s personality. For them, the cult of personality is a potentially dangerous strategy, one that obscures the communal dimensions and contexts of any real struggle.
South Africa’s student-led struggle has a racial component, but the struggle is not reducible to race. It is a multifocal struggle in which matters of race, patriarchy, gerontocracy and other issues are under constant, often blistering, scrutiny and re-appraisal. In the lexicon of the activists, the African National Congress is deeply implicated in the injustices and contradictions that provoked and continue to fuel the current battles. Many youngsters feel that the ANC has done far too little to reduce school fees, broaden educational and job opportunities, redress historical traumas of land dispossession, and advance curricular transformation.
One of the most significant aspects of the students’ fight is their insistence on articulating their own agenda. In May, students at UCT took on Xolexa Mangcu, a well-known sociologist at the University of Cape Town who has been a strong advocate of an Africanized educational system. The university had invited three American scholars, Judith Butler, Wendy Brown, and David Theo Goldberg to join Africanist philosopher Achille Mbembe in discussing the decolonization of the country’s curriculum. It didn’t matter that the speakers were deeply sympathetic to the students’ cause. A group of black students felt that the event reproduced a familiar pattern: paternalistic white usurpation of Africans’ discourse. These African students seized the microphone and passed it among themselves, registering their protest at the epistemic hijack of their cause.
Mr. Mangcu, a leading commentator on the subject of marginalization of Africans as subjects and discourse, felt he had the credentials to scold the students for indecorous conduct. They shouted him down, one of them characterizing him as “Uthengiwe lo,” which translated into a bought man. He later wrote about it, admitting, “I assumed a professorial and parental authority that I rudely discovered I do not have.” He also learned another lesson: “those of us who are not primary actors of any given struggle should not take it upon themselves to be its spokespeople.”
South Africa taught me this: Mandela’s (or Sobukwe’s) grandchildren are in revolt. And they wish to speak their own mind—thank you!