For decades, the statue of Cecil John Rhodes sat at the base of the regal, main staircase that is the central artery of the University of Cape Town’s Upper Campus. Rhodes, a British mining tycoon who exploited and colonized South African people and their land, overlooked not only the sparkling green rugby fields but also the vast Cape Town expanse that sprawls outward from the base of Table Mountain. During apartheid rule, the mountain was a tool for racial separation: under the Group Areas Act, wealthy White Afrikaners took over the mountain’s base and shoved Coloured and Black people away through a process known as forced removal. Millions of people were crammed into townships: outstretched neighborhoods with houses made from intentionally insecure, unstable, scant resources.
When the University of Cape Town began accepting Coloured and Black students in the 1980s, many had to run from their townships to UCT for class (about an hour or two on foot). At night, they ran back, leaving the mountain behind them for another day. Now, the landscape — physical and social — remains tragically unchanged. But students at South African universities are currently working to change that, focusing on economic fairness in higher education as one method toward a more equal society.
#FeesMustFall and other social justice campaigns — like the current protests at the University of Cape Town, or the recent Pretoria Girls High fight over racist hair policies — in South Africa are contributing to the fight for racial justice in an innovative way by explicitly attacking racism in higher education. Through this undeniable spotlight on race, South African students have shoved all facets of social inequality to the forefront of South Africa’s attention. In doing so, the student protesters convince anyone in favor of social equality that educational and racial equality, too, are necessary, and that universities that have the power to correct these obvious wrongs must do so. (This tactic is much bolder than affirmative action debates, for instance, that are common in the United States, because the South African approach does not leave any room for argument regarding historical and present injustice.) By shining a spotlight on the inextricable tie between educational and racial equality, South African students show that universities can be the best place to start in the fight against race-based economic and social oppression.
South African university students at the University of Cape Town first began their fight against racism and colonialism through #RhodesMustFall (RMF), which ultimately proved to be a necessary stepping stone to #FeesMustFall (FMF). The RMF movement began at the University of Cape Town about two years ago, in response to a legacy of blatant systemic and individual discrimination toward anyone not deemed White according to apartheid classifications. While the RMF student movement ostensibly sought to topple the colonialist Rhodes statue — and succeeded in this task on April 9, 2015 — this was certainly not the singular goal or ultimate achievement of RMF. After the RMF movement garnered international attention, FMF rose as a movement that was more general and thus more applicable to universities across South Africa. The FMF campaign demands that individual universities in South Africa fund education for their students — free tuition is the goal. It is a reaction to the fact that racism and structures of apartheid continue to perpetuate unequal access to higher education in South Africa.
Even though apartheid ended twenty years ago, these aftereffects of institutionalized racism continue to affect students because the permanence of the apartheid structures made post-apartheid restructuring a slow, seemingly impossible task. One such structure was the residential segregation previously mentioned. In order to facilitate this forced removal process, apartheid engineers constructed racial categories based on arbitrary qualifications. For instance, the Pencil Test was used to classify people as Indian, Coloured, Black, or White. Testers stuck a pencil in an individual’s hair, and whether the pencil stayed or fell determined how that person’s hair curl pattern qualified racially. Beyond the pencil test, government officials also relied on religion, ethnicity, and family heritage as methods of social classification. During apartheid, Coloured was a social status between that of Blacks and Whites, comprised of many mixed-race South Africans.
Like residential segregation, economic subjugation has also been a permanent obstacle to equality for Black and Coloured South Africans — arguably even more detrimental and impossible to combat than residential segregation. Under apartheid, almost everyone not deemed White was economically relegated to a low-paying job and geographically isolated to severely under-resourced townships that lacked infrastructure and business development. A residual effect of this injustice is that Black and Coloured families were unable to accumulate the economic capital necessary to send their children to college later — children who, since apartheid ended in 1994, are college-age today. As a result, apartheid-designated Black and Coloured students lack the money to pay for university, and drastic economic stratification remains. While political apartheid collapsed twenty years ago, FMF shows us that the mechanisms used during apartheid were so meticulously constructed and terribly damaging that their social oppression continues today, especially in South Africa’s institutions of higher learning.
As the protests expanded across campuses, administration has relied upon police brutality in an effort to suppress protests and “restore order.” And, on a national scale, South African President Jacob Zuma’s Ministerial Team has reaffirmed this aggressively militarized approach to the protests: the six-person team includes a Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, a Minister of Police, a Minister of State Security, and a Minister of Defense and Military Veterans. In an open letter to Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, the Head of the Anthropology Department at the University of Witwatersrand Kelly Gillespie described witnessing her students lacerated by rubber bullets, wounded by stun grenades, and ravaged by tear gas. Meanwhile, the protests have forced administration at the University of Cape Town, for instance, to decide between shutting down the university, thereby admitting that the university cannot continue to function, or continue with the academic year. On October 15, UCT Vice Chancellor Max Price released an announcement stating that UCT is at a “point of no return” and outlining pros and cons of shutting down the university.
Having chosen South African higher education as one battlefield for social justice and decolonization, the FMF movement attempts to expose to global citizens the stark race-based disparities that the White men who rule the universities in South Africa continue to enforce in their institutions. Students at prominent South African universities including the University of Cape Town (UCT), Stellenbosch University, University of Witwatersrand (Wits), Walter Sisulu University, and the University of the Western Cape have all adopted the FMF campaign, because the racial composition of the student bodies at these institutions still fails to accurately reflect the racial composition of South Africa.
In 2015, the South African census reported that South Africa is about 80% Black African, 9% Coloured, 8% White, and 3% Indian or Other Asian. However, the University of Cape Town (an institution founded originally for English-speaking Whites) student body, for instance, in 2014 was 23% African, 13.5% Coloured, 31% White, 7% Indian, 7.5% Other, and 18% International. Stellenbosch’s (a traditionally White Afrikaans institution) student body in 2014: 17% Coloured, 3% Indian, 17% Black, and 63% White. The University of Witwatersrand (traditionally a mining school that barred non-Whites from entry from 1959–1990 via the Extension of University Education Act) 2014 student body composition: 60% Black African, 4% Coloured, 13% Indian, 22% White, and 1% Chinese. And the University of the Western Cape’s (founded specifically for Coloured students) student body: 43% African, 47% Coloured, 5% Indian, 5% White. Given that Black and Coloured Africans constitute 90% of the country, racial exclusion clearly still plays a heavy hand in shaping the racial composition of universities in South Africa.
Reforming the South African university system is not a new goal. When Nelson Mandela was the President of South Africa, he avowed that all South African children should be able to access higher education. In 1998, in a speech at the opening of the Dalindyebo Secondary School, President Mandela acknowledged that youth education should top the government’s priority list. Having tenaciously pursued higher education himself, Mandela saw education as a beacon of economic opportunity and a path to racial integration. Unfortunately, as the FMF campaign reveals, social, racial, and educational equity remain elusive in South Africa.
What does the spotlight on faculty diversity, socioeconomic access, and race in institutions of higher learning reveal?
First, movements like FMF are undeniably race-based. This will sound wholly unsurprising for some but inevitably will sound misguided or unwarranted to others. While these sorts of movements are often cloaked in rhetoric like “socioeconomic inequity” or “inequality of opportunity,” we must acknowledge that they all stem from racial inequality. Racial persecution continues to be the engine of social and economic discrimination in South Africa, and countries around the globe.
Second, students conceive of universities as vital opportunities for social transformation. While certain readers may write off universities as ivory towers or stuffy academic environments, university students today are critical and proactive. Perhaps this portends an increasing level of political involvement in the future, in areas like public elections or social activism. But it also indicates that universities should take steps toward supporting the physical, emotional, and mental health of students, given the toll that activism can take. One might find the irony in this: universities needing to protect the health of students who work to improve university policies to better reflect student interests in the first place.
In any case, these movements indicate with great clarity that around the world, we as global citizens are not living in a post-racial society in any sense of the phrase. Beyond tangible steps such as university affirmative action programs, reparations, and devoting more resources toward civil rights fights, it is essential that we as individuals actively confront the false ideology of post-racialism. Such “active confrontation” will take on different meanings for different people. For instance, as Stanford students work to more widely acknowledge the truth about the land and history of Stanford, we would do well to promote solidarity with student movements across the globe. Students across the country and around the world who are working toward justice in representation are changing narratives and spreading understanding of historical injustices in an effort to counteract future injustices and center the stories of historically oppressed individuals and peoples. In studies, employment, actions, and conversations, we must direct unwavering attention to the influence of race throughout society.
Micaela Suminski, a senior studying urban studies, is the chief of staff of Stanford Political Journal.