Protest, Emancipation and Turmoil in South Africa: The Age of Discontent


By: Seth Kaplan

The protests at different South African Universities have continued in 2016. The emergence of these protests should be analyzed in the context of a nation that gave freedom and full citizenry (at least in theory) to its entire population almost 22 years ago. They should also not be seen as independent from the transformations in the international system and the economic crisis that has been looming internationally and already affecting South Africa.

The protests are in fact the outcome of the evolution of the South African state in the post-apartheid era. The protests speak to structural issues and the promises of the rainbow nation that are still to be fulfilled. Inequality has actually worsened, black citizens still face overwhelming structural hurdles to achieve real empowerment, and new mechanisms of political participation beyond existing political structures that might otherwise voice the dissent of citizens is weak.

Therefore it is no surprise that protest action has spread to multiple universities, making language, privilege and “heritage” the center of contention across SA, these topics are now national issues. The ushering in of majority rule and a change in national anthem have failed to effect the changes in social mobility, freedom and empowerment that were promised back in 1994; public discontent with the current situation, and the slow pace of change, is increasing and being expressed in protest and strike action.

The claims made by students speak to deep structural issues, but might get lost in academic jargon. The students have framed their claims within a “decolonization/post-colonialist/intersectionality” discourse. Perhaps because of this, public opinion seems to have failed to grasp the full nature of their claims, or ground these claims beyond the academic slang – many public observers have thus failed to link these claims to the socio economic and political structures of a state that was intentionally designed to exploit most of its citizens and where real citizenry is still fragile.

The protests triggered a series of debates, initially within academic institutions, regarding the marginalization, lack of institutional transformation and the prevailing structural inequality in South Africa that continues to negatively affect black South Africans. Citizens acquired “equality” in 1994, but the reality is that the structure of the South African state has not adapted itself completely to favor the emancipation of unempowered and marginalized citizens who comprise not a particular minority, but the biggest share of the population of the country. In South Africa, the poverty headcount ratio stands at 45% of the whole population, 15% higher than after the demise of the Apartheid Regime. The regime in power has changed, but many of the structures that were in place have not been altered. The granting of voting rights was never going to be sufficient to change an entire socio-economic system. Empowerment demands the state to play a strong role.

A potentially transformational force that has emerged in the rise of a new elite of black South Africans who have had access to higher education and are not necessarily aligned with the existing party structures. The oppressive regime of Apartheid instituted the Bantu Education system, a poor education system designed to train black citizens to fill the roles of gardeners and miners – to become low wage fodder. Now (some of) the “born free” generation (those South Africans born after 1994) are reaching the stage where they are obtaining quality tertiary education, and as such have the transformative potential of an educated and empowered class with the tools to effectively contest power and reconstitute the political landscape in the country.

In South Africa, a sector of the population is achieving mobility and improving their standard of living. However there is also a segment of the population that is worse off, where survival is dependent on government grants It is in this context that therise in protests across South Africa (including those outside of universities) demonstrate the discontent of a population that has been waiting for two decades. Where the official unemployment rate for youth (aged 15 – 34) rose from 33% in 2008 to 37% in 2015 it would be disingenuous to see the students’ protests as delinked from protests in other sectors in the country, as other protestors do not have the media visibility of university students.

Pressure on the South African state to deliver on the promises of the revolution in 94 is rising in the light of delays in realizing these promises. The government has thus far been successful avoiding any sustained direct confrontation with protestors in the public discourse, deflecting the debates, or using the police forces. In spite of some remarkable achievements in education coverage, the majority of poor South Africans are still waiting for quality basic service delivery; structural poverty and inequality makes the likelihood of a poor child having access to a better life miniscule.

These pressures are demonstrated in increasing levels of public discontent with regards to the reduction of the gap between the rich and the poor, one of the unfulfilled promises from the transition towards democracy and full citizenry for all South Africans. For more than two thirds of the population, the government is perceived to be handling the narrowing of the gap between rich and poor South Africans badly[1]. This perception is equally negative for South Africans with different education attainment levels and employment status, and has progressively worsened in recent years.

It is in this context that new populist political parties such as the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters) and new political forces in South Africa are emerging; in the last few years a series of new political parties have emerged waving flags that could represent the grievances of the miners and the new middle class, representing those that do not feel represented by the main political parties. Tensions are mounting and clear signals of a possible escalation towards violence are emerging in the presence of a government that behaves like an absent parent, when it is not relying on repression to deal with protestors across the country. The South African government now resembles a fragile institution more closely than the promise of the nation led by Nelson Mandela. According to the South African Reconciliation Barometer report for 2014, trust in the parliament and national leaders has declined, hinting at the potential erosion of the credibility of state institutions.

If the State is no longer a valid and legitimate point of reference, the politics of opportunism and radicalization can easily emerge, fueling violence and confrontation. In a country where inequalities are highly correlated with skin color, populist parties that could fuel ethnic tensions might emerge. However, is in this space that active students emerge as an important constituency. With roughly one million studentscurrently in the Higher education system, a political party that represents the interests of young and highly educated South Africans has the potential to create a new political force that speaks to the needs and discontent of the “born free” generation. These young South Africans will also have much to offer, and to challenge, as members of whatever political parties they join. Here we must not forget that the French, Chinese and Russians revolutions emerged when new elites did not feel recognized or feel allegiance to their existing governments[2].

Despite politicians’ attempts to tag along with the demands made by students, the protests (thus far) have been largely issues driven and resisted towing any party lines. However, this does not guarantee that they will be immune to cooptation by party players in the political system.

Inequality seems to be firmly cemented in South African society. South Africa is still the most unequal country in the world: this inequality is part of the heritage left by the Apartheid regime and, ironically, has been exacerbated since 1994. As long as this heritage prevails, we should expect protests to continue. If the state keeps playing the role of an absent parent, violence might emerge.

[1] Source: Afro Barometer[1]. The figure of 2/3 is based on the analysis of the responses to the question “How well would you say the government is handling the following matters? Would you say very well, fairly well, not very well, or not at all well, or haven’t you heard enough about this to have an opinion: Narrowing the income gap between rich and poor?”.Calculations based on data retrieved from The Afrobarometer is a survey research project that measures citizen perceptions on a series of topics such as democracy and governance, the economy and civil society.

[2] For this see the book “States and Social Revolutions”, by Theda Skocpol.


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