Soweto to #RhodesMustFall: the changing face of South African resistance

Sunday 23 October, 12.00 - 13.00 , Frobisher 1-3 Eye on the World

In Association With:

Video and audio of this debate are available at the bottom of this page.

South Africa’s local government elections this year showed a mass disaffection with the ruling African National Congress. Nevertheless, there seems to be little positive support for the myriad of uninspiring opposition parties. Disillusionment with the ANC is certainly understandable: President Jacob Zuma is a considered a corrupt and fading force; the government has failed to deliver on public services while the economy has flat lined and job prospects have dipped. What little money the state does have is divvied up among the ANC’s hangers-on. Certainly the election results show voters are no longer swayed by the ANC’s appeals to its historical role in the struggle against apartheid. Many commentators have noted that those black South Africans born in the mid-1980s and 1990s - known as the ‘born-frees’ and derided as ‘cleva’ blacks, ‘Guccis’ or sell-outs by the ANC - have rejected the ANC’s nostalgic call to remember the liberation struggle and its heroes.

Black youth themselves, especially students, seem to have become a new force in South African politics. The #FeesMustFall campaign, made internationally famous with its #RhodesMustFall protests, spread from the University of Witwatersrand) to the University of Cape Town, Pretoria, Johannesburg and even – perhaps ironically - to Rhodes. Many liberal observers enthused about reliving the heady days of Soweto ’76. But back then 20,000 students protested and the establishment responded brutally, killing 176 students. In contrast, today’s ruling elites seem to bend over backwards to empathise with student activists: the vice chancellor of Wits even resorted to sitting cross-legged on the floor so he didn’t appear to be ‘above’ the students. The students may have linked their demands to the conditions of outsourced workers and to the plight of the Marikana miners, but their focus on changing the curriculum of university courses to reflect the ‘black’ (Fanon, Mda and Adiche) as opposed to the ‘colonial’ (Shakespeare, Dickens and Conrad) experience seems to have more in common with Anglo-American ‘Generation Snowflake’ phenomenon than Soweto’s youthful heroes and martyrs of 40 years ago. And with campaigns for black-only safe spaces on campus and the racial undertones of UCT students setting fire to paintings of white people, some fear a new racialising of South African youth movements.

What is the future for millennials in South Africa in the wake of the ANC’s decline? Is the colonial past a greater hindrance to advancement for young South Africans than the present regime? Is the demand for a ‘black’ education a fulfilment or betrayal of the demands for equal education that people in ’76 were fighting for? Are the ANC right that many of their youthful opponent ‘born-frees’ are spoilt, middle-class brats rather than a serious force for changing South African society for the better? Or are they the hope for a new political radicalism in defiance of the tired old guard?