A Brief History of Student Protests

By Stacy Hardy

“Bile bums my inside!/ I feel like vomiting! For all our young men/ Were finished in the forest/Their manhood was finished/ In the classrooms/ Their testicles/ Were smashed/ With large books!”

First published 50 years ago, these incendiary lines in Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino capture the ongoing antagonism towards the university as a colonial construct.

The university in Africa has always been a site of turmoil, conflict and insurrection, but the sources of the conflict and how it is enacted are varied, and often dependent on complex specific political climates and the ongoing flows of ideas between the continent and elsewhere.

In the 1940s and 1950s, university students played a key role in movements for national liberation. Exiled student groups encountered a left wing, and the converging communist ideologies fed into both African students’ anti-imperialism and the rise of a radical political student body in Europe and the USA in the 1960s. Ideas, books and people circulated widely.

Following independence, the African student intelligentsia returned, often after years overseas, and helped set up, lead and organise the nationalist forces that were gathering momentum. But the relationship between returning students and the leaders of the liberation struggles was complex. Often students found their ideals and aspirations in conflict with the politics of revolutionary leaders who lacked their education but were closer in analysis and interest to the mass of the population.

This piece appears in the Chronic, April 2016.

This tension played itself out at post-independence universities across the continent. As Mahmood Mamdani writes in University Crisis and Reform: A Reflection on the African Experience: “The new post-independence African university was triumphantly universalistic and uncompromisingly foreign. We made no concession to local culture. None! We stood as custodians of standards in outposts of civilisation. Unlike our counterparts in Asia and Latin America, we did not even speak the cultural languages of the people. The language of the university was either English, French or Portuguese.”

In Senegal throughout most of the 1970s and 1980s, student revolts earned the University of Dakar the reputation of being a hotbed of radical politics. Under President Senghor in particular, Senegal’s educational policies were a sore spot for a large segment of the Senegalese intelligentsia who thought that the French-based Senegalese education system was poorly adapted to the country’s needs and was a form of cultural neo-colonialism. The presence of nearly 1,000 French teachers in the school system reinforced this impression, as did Senghor’s resistance to making the national languages a more important part of the curriculum.

Similarly, at independence, the academic staff of Makerere in Uganda were sharply divided between a senior expatriate staff who called for the university to be autonomous, and local staff who saw the university as a national asset. Mamdani recalls that “the locals prevailed, at least in the short run. It then seemed natural to us that the state play a key role in managing the university. The university staff was Africanised in a matter of a few years.”

However, as Mamdani goes on to point out, “we de-racialised them but failed to de-colonise them… a change in occupants does not necessarily change the institution concerned. In fact, the reverse happened: through affirmative action, colonial-type institutions were able to get a new lease of life, a reinforced legitimacy, and fortify themselves against pressures for a change in orientation and purpose.”

This stalemate left universities especially vulnerable to the sweeping “development reforms” ushered in by structural adjustment packages recommended by the IMF and the World Bank in the 1980s. The bank saw education as an investment like any other, foolish to make unless the returns were profitable. Recognising that its call for a closure of universities was politically unsustainable, the Bank subsequently called for universities to be trimmed and restructured to produce only those skills which the market demands.

This reversed the policy African nations had established at independence, when the expansion of the university system was considered by all social forces as the precondition for economic and political progress. The most immediate consequences of the restructuring of African universities were an unprecedented brain drain and the collapse of their physical and pedagogical infrastructure: subsidies to students were reduced or terminated, academic wages were frozen, grants for research were eliminated and investment in the universities’ infrastructure was drastically cut.

Dissatisfaction with the structural adjustment reforms led to an upwelling of social unrest, sometimes helping to forge alliances between students and other social forces. Between 1970 and 1979, major student protests occurred in some 29 countries and in three-quarters of the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. In the period 1980–1989, similar incidents were reported in more than 25 countries.

In Nigeria, students were at the forefront of the protests that were organised by workers and civil servants in April 1988 against increases in the price of petrol, the cutting back of civil servants’ “fringe” benefits (housing and other allowances) and the dissolution of the Nigerian Labour Congress. Student leaders directly implicated the IMF and the World Bank-inspired structural adjustment reforms as the primary target of their outrage.

Structural adjustment also contributed to the rising wave of Islamic fundamentalism across the continent. In Senegal, in January 1987, the University of Dakar was closed for some time following confrontations between students and police after students demonstrating against deteriorating economic conditions announced a general strike. As in Nigeria, increasing Islamic fundamentalism in Senegal seemed to fuse with protests organised by students and other groups, turning them even more violent.

This was a growing trend across the continent. In Revolt and Protest: Student Politics and Activism in Sub-Saharan Africa, Leo Zeilig notes that it was students who formed the backbone of the growth of Islamist movements in Africa. He quotes Chris Harman: “It was the control and domination of Islamic ideas on the campuses of Algeria in the 1980s and 1990s that ensured that the Islamists were able to step into the ‘impoverished streets of the cities where students and ex-students mixed with a mass of other people scrabbling for a livelihood’. The convergence of forces – between an impoverished student and ex-student body and the ‘mass of other people’ – has manifested itself in a multiplicity of movements.”

As the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, governments on the continent became increasingly wary of student action since, as was the case for many unstable African regimes, student protests proved to be the spark that ignited more widespread social unrest. For African universities, this meant a curtailment of critical scholarship, harassment of staff and students, jailings and the detentions of scholars, and the periodic closure of universities.

The events of 1989 and 1990 in Eastern Europe and the Tiananmen Square protests refocused the world’s attention on the potential for protests to provoke real change. Those events, and the power and immediacy of the mass media, especially television, in conveying them simultaneously to millions of people around the world, gave an additional boosts to aggrieved students at African universities. During 1989, and for part of 1990, across the breadth of sub-Saharan Africa – from Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, and Nigeria in Western Africa to Cameroon, Zaire and Gabon in Central Africa; and from Uganda, Sudan, Kenya and Somalia in Eastern Africa to Zimbabwe and Zambia in Southern Africa – peasants, workers, the clergy, opposition political leaders, and students and other youth were among the social forces clamouring for political and economic changes.

But, as Silvia Federici, George Caffentzis and Ousseina Alidou highlight in A Thousand Flowers: Social Struggles Against Structural Adjustment in African Universities, it would be a mistake to view the protest that has gripped the continent as largely “pro-democracy”. Rather, they suggest, it must be seen as a continuum of the fierce anti-imperialist stand that university students in Africa have always taken, and of their ongoing fight for intellectual and social freedom. “They would have us believe that the African students’ protest aims exclusively at ‘political’ objectives such as civil liberties and the end of arbitrary rules… The hundreds of dead students, the thousands arrested and tortured, the many more who have demonstrated and gone on strike in the face of violent repression between 1985 and 1998, teach us that the struggle for access to knowledge is not passé in Africa.”

Increasingly, the neo-liberal processes that led to the privatisation and commodification of university education in sub-Saharan Africa transported student identity into the centre of the structural crisis. In Mamdani’s words, “previously a more or less guaranteed route to position and privilege, higher education seemed to lead more and more students to the heart of the economic and social crisis”.

As Zeilig points out, students are no longer a transitory social group waiting to be allotted government employment; on the contrary, they have increasingly converged with the wider urban poor, social groups that they had historically regarded as their responsibility to liberate. They are no longer a marginal social group.

By the new millennium, university graduates in Morocco and Algeria were no more likely to be employed than their peers who had only completed primary or secondary school. Education thus played an important role in the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, with many commentators noting that educated youth have been integral to what has come to be called the “Arab Spring”.

In Côte d’Ivoire, the rise of the educated class and of political awareness was not matched by economic mobility. This situation created frustration among the literate but largely unemployed youth, which in turn fed the politicisation of education and ultimately fuelled the conflict that gripped the country following the October 2010 elections. Universities quickly became embroiled in the struggle, as tension mounted between the pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara student camps. A number of universities, including those in Abidjan, Daloa and Korhogo, were forced to shut down indefinitely and other were transformed into improvised military training camps. Occupation and use of university facilities by forces on both sides led to substantial damage, looting and destruction.

The flip side is that university students are no longer a commodity useful to corrupt African states. From the point of view of capitalism, they are no different from the general populace, and no less disposable. Equally, they have nothing more to lose.

Since 1994, South African students have had their own struggles. In the first two decades following the advent of democracy, there has been wave after wave of student protest action, largely on the campuses of South Africa’’s historically black universities: at the University of Limpopo in 2009, 2011 and 2012, Mangosuthu University of Technology in Durban in 2009, Tshwane University of Technology in 2012 and 2014, Vaal University of Technology in 2014, Walter Sisulu University of Technology in the Eastern Cape, and at two Western Cape further education and training colleges, False Bay College and the College of Cape Town, in 2012, to name but a few. The major demands by protesting students across the country are similar: that tertiary institutions not exclude students on academic grounds; that tuition and accommodation fees be reduced; and that students be provided with more financial support and wider access to bursaries.

These protests received little attention in the media until 2015, when students at the University of Cape Town (UCT), an historically white institution, took issue with the legacy of colonialism, symbolised by the statue of Cecil John Rhodes on the campus. Protests at UCT soon spread to other campuses, as underlying youth anger at the legacies of racial discrimination and colonialism, high levels of unemployment and pronounced and increasing income inequality, crystallised into a national movement in October, when universities began to announce fee increases in excess of 10 per cent for the 2016 academic year. The government, initially dismissive, was forced to impose a freeze on fee increases and find emergency funding.

Most of the protests have turned violent, and have led to injuries and arrests.  As elsewhere on the continent, student protesters often come up against heavily armed police, leading to tragic outcomes. It’s a familiar script. The question however remains of whether the South African university protests will set off wider social protests which, as Leo Zeilig notes, are vital to sustaining a movement that will die if it remains isolated in the university.

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This story features in the Chronic (April 2016), an edition in which we explore the tensions between reform and revolution, and decolonisation and the neoliberal order in the academy, through the lens of history and via the alternate education paradigms based in indigenous knowledge systems, and also arising from South Africa’s radical anti-apartheid struggle.

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