Exploring South African Youth Movements
This article is going to take a deeper look at South Africa’s unique position within movements advocating for educational transformation, the activism that has transpired as a result of the colonial and apartheid education systems, and the barriers that limit equal access to education but more specifically tertiary education. We will be taking a look at the Black Conscious Movement, the #RhodesMustFall Movement, and #FeesMustFall Movement. Lastly we will dive into the key features of these movements individually and collectively to understand the role that they have had on education within the country.
Understanding South Africa’s Education History
Before diving into the history of formalized education within South Africa it’s worthy to note that learning within indigenous cultures far outdate our time frames of education. Life in its essence, more than human and human, was central to the ways of living, being, and learning for the indigenous peoples of South Africa. Let's honor the dynamic ways of learning that can be seen throughout history as we read ahead.
Systemized education within South Africa can be traced back to the 17th century, very soon after Dutch settlers established their first colony on South African soil. This systemized education, exclusive and limited as it was to the native people of South Africa, contextualized not only the physical acts of colonization but the mental as well.
If we fast forward a couple of decades, we can see a record of the formalization of education systems under the British colonial rule within South Africa. This era of formal education and the establishment of the first department of education within the country solidified the power and identities of the British and enabled a new wave of control over the country.
And lastly and most recently, the apartheid government. During apartheid the Bantu education act was passed in an effort to not only segregate African students but made it mandatory for African students to attend schools registered under the apartheid government. In other words, Black students now had to attend racially-segregated schools that taught them to act in service of socioeconomic systems that did not serve them. Although the Bantu education act was repealed 40+ years ago, the apartheid government and their regime enabled institutional ways of operating, such as unequal access to education and monocultural curricula, that are undeniably sewn into current spaces, systems, & government. The educational movements we are looking at today are excellent examples of the fight against these systemic issues that have prevailed all past colonial and postcolonial reigning's of the country.
Lessons from Movements
Black Consciousness Movement (1969-1977): Students Fighting the Apartheid Regime Through Mental Liberation
The Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) was the culmination of the South Africans Students Organisation (SASO) which was formed in 1969 by Black South African students who felt that the fight against the oppressive apartheid government should be led by those most affected by the system, Black South Africans. SASO provided the foundation for activists to develop the Black Consciousness Philosophy. In his book, I Write What I Like, Steven Biko, a philosopher and anti-apartheid activist, defines the Black Consciousness Philosophy as "An attitude of the mind and a way of life, the most positive call to emanate from the black world for a long time. Its essence is the realization by the black man of the need to rally together with his brothers around the cause of their oppression - the blackness of their skin - and to operate as a group to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude."
It is important to note that the SASO and Biko defined the Black identity in the Black Consciousness philosophy as those who are by law or tradition politically, economically and socially discriminated against as a group in the South African society and identifying themselves as a unit in the struggle towards the realization of their aspirations (1971). Led by Steve Biko the movement aimed to be an organization that would create and implement change for those oppressed under the apartheid government. The shared vision amongst those in the movement was the mental liberation for the Black people of South Africa in an effort to enable independence, pride and strength in the Black identity under a government that perpetuated a deeply racist culture that alienated African histories, knowledge, and potential.
The BCM fueled the creation of many anti-apartheid organisations that fought the apartheid regime politically, socially, and systemically. For example the South African Student Movement (SASM), a Black Consciousness organization, played a significant role in the Soweto uprising of June 1976. This protest was against an official order that made Afrikaans the language of instruction in black township schools throughout the country. In honor of the approximately 500 lives lost during this protest due to apartheid police, June 16th is now celebrated as Youth Day in South Africa.
#RhodesMustFall (2015): University Students Demanding Decolonization
A few decades after the BCM and closely linked in its vision, #RhodesMustFall (RMF) was established in March 2015 in response to the long standing monoculturalism of education within South Africa. “RMF weaved through intersecting ideas of Black Consciousness, Pan Africanism and Black Radical Feminism as tools of analysis…. It was through the intersection of these cardinal pillars that the movement succeeded in influencing the ways in which the academy thought about the production of new knowledge across South African universities, and abroad” (Dr. Wandile Kasibe, 2021).
Within a month of #RhodesMustFall, students from the University of Cape Town (UCT) organized an action to take down an infamous statue of colonial figure, Cecil Rhodes. Cecil Rhodes was one of the leading figures in British imperialism at the end of the 19th Century, pushing the empire to seize control over vast areas of southern Africa (Richard Allen Greene, 2020). Stated in UCT’s #RhodesMustFall mission statement: “Its presence erases black history and is an act of violence against black students, workers and staff….The statue was therefore the natural starting point of this movement. Its removal will not mark the end but the beginning of the long overdue process of decolonizing this university. In our belief, the experiences seeking to be addressed by this movement are not unique to an elite institution such as UCT, but rather reflect broader dynamics of a racist and patriarchal society that has remained unchanged since the end of formal apartheid.”
In response to RMF in South Africa, many institutes globally shared their support through solidarity actions, namely in Oxford where many students expressed and participated in actions, standing with the movement and pushing for the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford to be removed as well. #RhodesMustFall was a pivotal moment within recent South African academic spaces as well as globally. It was a powerful example of young people enacting change and demanding an education that serves them as students of color —an education that includes and honors non-Western cultures and ways of knowing and being.
#FeesMustFall (2015 - 2023): Students demanding equal access to an education that serves them.
Established a few months after and in solidarity with the #RhodesMustFall movement, , the #FeesMustFall (FMF) movement began with students protesting against the high cost of tertiary education, demanding a stop of tuition fee increases and expanding financial support from the government to allow students equal access to education. The movement promoted a discussion on the complexity & history of African people being systematically excluded from institutions, highlighting the limitations & exclusivity of high tuition fees, and linking the conversation to apartheid derived intergenerational inequality. In drawing a link between high tuition fees and colonialism, decolonization became central to the FMF movement & vision.
The momentum from RMF, FMF, and their united action across the country ensued a legislative stop of tuition fee increases for the year 2016. The potential of students and the change they can enact was affirmed during this crucial time of youth activism in the country, paving the way for addressing the lingering effects of apartheid systemically and socially.
"Not since the Soweto Uprising of 1976 have this many youth arisen to demand the right to quality and accessible education." (Basani Baloyi and Gilad Isaacs, 2015)
In conclusion, despite South Africa's complex & unequal history, an overarching theme from these movements is that young people have been at the forefront of taking action and enacting change rooted in justice & liberation. These youth-led movements have been central to the development of education in South Africa and have collectively opened the way for an unlearning and relearning of what education is, what it looks like, and who it serves.
A collective lesson learned from these movements has been that young people are incredibly capable of creating the change they want to see and be in the world; they are resilient, passionate and the actions they take are sacred. Let's continue to honor, and learn from these movements in an effort to pursue just education and learning for all.
Writer - Mohini Govender
Editors- Zineb Mouyhi and Valentina Raman