Youth Month : Understanding Dynamics in Contemporary Student Movements

29 June 2018

The notable 2015 student movements in South Africa, and how the resultant anti-colonialist development sprouted to be more than just student financial difficulties. The blog looks at notable scholars, but acknowledges that the general public opinion on the decolonisation agenda is important, yet marginalised for decision making. We look at political contention to rationalise this conflict and how it influences the evolution of the key functions of universities. On that note, it is important to applaud the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa. In closing will entice conversation on elitist formations within student and institutional bodies that affect student movements global patterns.


The previous blog commemorated youth month as preserving the vibrancy of teaching and learning through innovative knowledge management structures and systems. We concluded that contentious politics in higher education is based on the lack of established collective understandings. Disruptive innovation in this regard referred to innovation that creates a new market and value network and eventually disrupts (improves) existing markets and value chain networks. This is one way of sublimating contention for social change, in this case, student movements.



In 2015 and 2016, violent student movements associated with the Fees Must Fall (FMF) movement in South Africa have been a strong reminder of the unique paradox that has characterised the country’s higher education system since the end of apartheid. On the one hand, South Africa’s top universities are the most advanced in the entire continent in terms of their capacity to train doctoral students and the international visibility of their research production.


It is important to note that sublimation from the 2015 Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) protests is similar to the youth-led Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), the idea to decolonise education sprouted from this engagement. Similarly anti-apartheid activism during the mid-1960s came out of the political vacuum of the time, jailing and banning of the African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress leadership after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. Later we’ll explain that unlike contemporary student movements in South Africa, BCM was the moral compass of past resistance.

New Student Movements in South Africa


Much of the older generation of apartheid activists argue that the leadership and agenda of this new student movements is usually murky which as compared to the liberation leaders, however the speed in which the nationwide narratives spread much quicker due to social media. The RMF campaign occurred on 9 March 2015, when Chumani Maxwele threw human faeces onto the Cecil John Rhodes statue and toyi-toyi’d (protest march) with approximately a dozen protesters at the statue. On 20 March 2015, students stormed the Bremner building, which houses the UCT offices during a speech addressing the removal of the statue by UCT vice-chancellor Max Price. On 22 March, it was reported that the students were still occupying the building and that members of the public were supplying them with food. UCT’s senate voted in favour of the removal of the statue on 27 March 2015, and following the vote, the statue was boarded up pending the final decision from the university’s council.


Also support for the controversial Mcebo Dlamini (then SRC president of Wits) on 25 April 2015, stated in a Facebook post that he “loves Adolf Hitler” and admired Hitler for his “charisma” and “organisational skills.” On the same day media reported that the RMF movement stated that it “rejects the removal of Wits SRC President Mcebo Dlamini.”


Anti-Colonialist Development


Some scholars believe that policy-makers keen on setting the conditions to allow universities to make a more meaningful contribution to their countries’ development agenda and for higher education researchers studying the evolving role of African universities. As Manuel Castells (sociologist especially associated with research on the information society, communication and globalization) reminds the reader, “higher education institutions are essential for both economic growth and social justice. Populist demagogues hate universities because they are, after all, the bastions of critical thinking and legitimate resistance to abuses. Universities also have to protect their mission as beacons of innovation, ideas and equality”.


The ANC Youth League galvanised resistance of the apartheid regime in African nationalism, then later to transformed into a militant to be the centre of political agency. Leadership were older people, through youth needed energy from youth perspective. Boycotts, strikes, civil disobedience and other defiant strategies. Black consciousness movement was the unifying ethos moving forward
Public opinion

Public Opinion of Decolonisation of Education is Important


Language is culture shaping the minds of those who share the language. The youth 1976 protested bantu education, to resist the use of the oppressors language, Afrikaans. Nowadays, the decolonization has murky definitions. It is important that oppressed people rediscover the social identity, but not only that, use the reflection to heal. Having said that, a nationally accepted view of what decolonisation of education is for South Africa is important. Understanding how oppressed learners are positioned by the educational environment. The need to establish how to move forward by understanding the various public understandings. This is not clear and it is dangerous to implement the agenda of decolonising education.


The #FeesMustFall student protest has been the subject of much social research. This research means to be reflective and sometimes prescriptive, notably by suggesting decolonization of education. However, it is important to observe the geography of campuses. We believe that universities symbolise a socio-economic microcosm for the place where a campus is situated. What higher education researchers call historically disadvantaged/black universities, are usually situated in presently disadvantaged residential communities. The same goes for historically advantaged/white universities and their residential communities, this conveniently creates regional development, through higher education outputs. South Africa has its ‘big five’ universities – a term that resonates because of its association with the country’s top wild mammals (elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and buffalo). Comparatively, the United States of America has its Ivy League, Australia the Group of Eight and the UK the Russell Group, these campuses are typically located in relatively economically affluent residential communities.


The BRICS ranking, first launched in 2013, aims to highlight the 300 of the most prestigious institutions in the five major emerging economies of the BRICS countries, aimed at inter-regional development. Ranked first is the University of Cape Town in the upper class suburb of Rondebosch on the foot of Devil’s Peak; Second is the University of the Witwatersrand located in Parkton near the posh economic hub of Africa; Third is the University of Pretoria, a multi-campus university at the heart of the capital city; Fourth is Stellenbosch University located at the rich Cape Winelands; and then ranked Fifth is the University of Johannesburg, another multi-campus university where the most funded is in Auckland Park where contentious relations lie with those students in the under resourced Soweto township campus since the 2005 merger.


Prioritising multilateral transnational develop through structures like BRICS yields better ranking perspective than a wider global reflection. The trade of resources and establishing multiple economies for social change could happen quicker. Much of independent states are economically crippled by the Bretton Woods financial system. Loan repayments hamper regional development, ironically the repayments benefit the west, economic slavery. In November 2016, MP of South Africa Alf Lees said what Parliament should have been concerned with is not the IMF and the World Bank but the vast amounts South Africa agreed to contribute towards the establishment of the Brics Bank. Africa finding solutions from Africa is often better on paper than on reality. The fact is that International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank are “Westernised” institutions, devised in a post-war colonial area with no regard for democracy and transparency


Alan Greenblatt in the article The End Of WASP-Dominated Politics writes: “Social elitism in Ivy League is often associated with the upper class White Anglo-Saxon Protestant community of the Northeast, Old Money, or more generally, the American upper middle and upper classes. Although most Ivy League students come from upper middle- and upper-class families, the student body has become increasingly more economically and ethnically diverse. The universities provide significant financial aid to help increase the enrollment of lower income and middle class students”. Then Robin Hayes in an article Why Ivy League Schools Are So Bad at Economic Diversity, several reports suggest, however, that the proportion of students from less-affluent families remains low. South Africa has the highest family income inequality in the world, sadly having such a wide rich-poor gap within society creates much political contention making harder for rapid regional development.

Political Concepts to Rationalise this Conflict


The violent student protests associated with the ‘Fees Must Fall’ movement in South Africa have been a strong reminder of the unique paradox that has characterised the country’s higher education system since the end of apartheid. On the one hand, South Africa’s top universities are the most advanced in the entire continent in terms of their capacity to train doctoral students and the international visibility of their research production.


Contentious Politics by Tilly and Tarrow say it involves interactions in which actors make claims bearing on other actors’ interests, leading to coordinated efforts on behalf of shared interests or programs, in which governments are involved as targets, initiators of claims, or third parties. Contentious politics thus brings together three familiar features of social life: contention, collective action, and politics.


Contention involves making claims that bear on someone else’s interests. In everyday life, contention ranges from small matters such as which television show we should watch tonight to bigger questions such as whether your sister Sue should marry the man she is dating. But it also takes place in football matches, rival advertising campaigns, and struggles between cantankerous patients and irritable doctors.


South African higher education system has remained one of the most segmented and unequal systems in Africa, despite the efforts of the successive democratic governments to expand access in an equitable manner. Today, even though the black population accounts for 80% of all South Africans, only 16% of black South Africans go to college, compared to 55% of whites.

contentious pols

Findings from Castells in Africa: Universities and Development


Building on the scholarly contribution of great thinkers like Humboldt and Clark Kerr, Castells analyses the evolution of the key functions performed by universities. The first one is ideological, reflecting the traditional role of transmitting the values that help legitimise the existing social order. The second role is that of selection of the elites and formation of networks to ensure social cohesion. Training the labour force is the third role performed by universities in support of the state bureaucracy and the professional needs of the economy. Knowledge generation and dissemination (research) is the last function.


Manuel Castells carefully analyses the challenge faced by universities as they have tried over time to manage these four functions, which can often be contradictory in nature.

The influence of Castells’ writings was not felt only in Third World countries; his work shed light on recent developments in industrial economies as well. He examined how, as a result of global pressures in a world increasingly driven by knowledge and innovation, the role of the state has evolved into what he calls the ‘networked state’, reflecting the need to develop the informational infrastructure for the 21st century and train the indispensable human capital.


If we take seriously the notion that we live in a global knowledge economy (Information Age) and in a society based on processing information – as universities primarily are – then the quality, effectiveness and relevance of the university system will be directly related to the ability of people, society and institutions to develop.


Castells was a pioneer in many respects. He was one of the first sociologists to write about the importance of knowledge generation and innovation, many years before the term ‘knowledge economy’ was coined. He studied how the spread of technology has shaped the distribution and concentration of power in modern societies. He also foresaw the rise of the networked society, long before the invention of Facebook and social media.


Reflecting on global developments in recent years, Castells identifies three trends that, together, significantly affect the situation and the role of universities. First, the 2008 financial crisis has shown the importance and the volatility of global financial markets that are increasingly at the core of national and international economies.


Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa


The Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa (HERANA) researchers adapted Castells’ framework to examine the evolution of Sub-Saharan African universities from four complementary and sometimes contradictory perspectives: the university as ancillary (a narrow focus on training civil servants and professionals), the university as a self-governing institution, the university as an instrument of the development agenda and, finally, the university as an engine of development. Apart from the University of Nairobi and the University of Ghana, the percentage of permanent academics with doctorates increased; and, with the exception of Eduardo Mondlane University and the University of Mauritius, the number of doctoral graduates also increased significantly. In addition, research outputs have risen dramatically at all eight universities, albeit from a low base in most cases. University World News reports that he HERANA project may also be credited with contributing to the launch of the African Research Universities Alliance, a network of 16 leading higher education institutions that aims to strengthen these bodies through capacity-building and through the establishment of a critical mass that can support their knowledge production. However, further empirical evidence on the complex social and political dynamics of research governance in Africa needs to be obtained to map the future and support the establishment of research-intensive universities on the continent.


Elite Formation


One of the main findings of the investigation was that, with the exception of the University of Cape Town, leading universities in other African countries have found it difficult to move away from their traditional undergraduate teaching role and build up their research capacity. This result confirms Castells’ observation that African universities have focused on elite formation rather than striving to make a sustainable contribution to knowledge production.


Castells and other scholars also analyse the absence of science and technology policies in most Sub-Saharan African countries, which sustains resource autonomy of relatively elitist research universities. The lack of alignment between official government declarations about the importance of higher education and actual funding allocations, and the need for increased institutional differentiation to allow flagship universities to deepen their research core. There are two anti elite formation notions to consider here. Firstly the evolving philosophy such as the education decolonisation agenda, as this has disgruntled many students but cannot be defined nor whom is to best implement it. Secondly is the high African Brain Drain crisis, more research has to be done on the influence of donor agencies in relation to capacity building efforts in the African university sector. It is noteworthy that elite formation pleases the few, yet frustrates the majority.


This frustration is to recognize emotions and emotional processes as central to an understanding of contentious politics. In a journal article Emotions and Contentious Politics, Ron Aminzade and Doug McAdam note that the study of emotions was not absent from early analyses of collective behavior and social movements. “This earlier work typically equated emotions with irrationality and assumed that emotions and rationality are incompatible. This often led to a narrow focus on the emotional content of sudden outbursts of crowd behavior”, they claim. The work represented in this collection rejects the false dichotomy of emotions and rationality and adopts a much broader perspective on the role of emotions.


Student Movements Global Patterns


A scholar reviews Tilly and Tarrow: “democracy is used to delineate the rights and protections which the citizenry enjoy in the face of elite power. The primary lesson which any reader should take from this book is the following. When capacity and democracy intersect, they produce specific outcomes. For example, high-capacity democratic regimes, such as those of Australia, Japan and Norway, are a modern and unusual phenomena, where social movements are most prevalent, given the favourable conditions for their enacting”. Spanning human history, the majority of regimes, the authors assert, are low capacity undemocratic, within which contentions tend to result in civil wars. In our quest for a non-violent world, where dissent can be aired and a form of agonistic democracy nourished, we therefore must work to build both the capacity and the democracy of states emerging from, or descending into, conflict.


Repertoire of contention refers, in social movement theory, to the set of various protest-related tools and actions available to a movement or related organization in a given time frame.  Tarrow argues that moments of madness do not transform the repertoire of contention all at once and out of whole cloth, but contribute to its evolution through the dynamic evolution of larger cycles of mobilization in which the innovations in collective action that they produce are diffused, tested, and refined in adumbrated form and eventually become part of the accepted repertoire. It is within these larger cycles that new forms of contention combine with old ones, the expressive encounters the instrumental, traditional social actors adopt tactics from new arrivals, and newly invented forms of collective action become what I call “modular.” Cycles of protest are the crucibles in which moments of madness are tempered into the permanent tools of a society’s repertoire of contention.


Springtime: The New Student Rebellions edited by Laurie Penny and Tania Palmieri draws similarities to South Africa’s 2015 RMF to FMF student movements. A wave of student protests across the UK in 2010, in response to the coalition government’s savage cuts in state funding for higher education, cuts which formed the basis for an ideological attack on the nature of education itself. Rather than a series of isolated incidents, they formed a movement that replicated a phenomenon that has gone global: from the US to Europe, students have been in the vanguard of protest against governments’ harsh austerity measures. Tracing these worldwide protests, the book explores how the protests spread and how they were organized, through the unprecedented use of social networking media such as facebook and twitter. It looks, too, at events on the ground, the demonstrations, and the police tactics: kettling, cavalry charges and violent assault. From Athens to Rome, San Francisco to Millbank, this book looks at how the new student protests developed into one of the most potent movements for change in our time. Really interesting.


Only if societal problems are perceived as problems and if this perception guides practices, can protest emerge. Hence “cognitive liberation” and rebellious consciousness are necessary. Tarrow would agree with the book as, “there are regular variations in political or social phenomena is scarcely a new or surprising idea. Wilhelm Buerklin, for example, writes that “virtually all time series describing and explaining social and political change display deviations or fluctuations of one sort or another”. A cycle of protest will be operationalized this essay as an increasing and then decreasing wave of inter- related collective actions and reactions to them whose aggregate frequency, intensity, and forms increase and then decline in rough chronological proximity.




This blog assessed the student movements in South Africa and how anti-colonialist development narratives sprouted to be more than just student financial difficulties. The blog looks at notable scholars, but acknowledges that the general public opinion on the decolonisation agenda is important, yet marginalised for decision making. We looked at political contention to rationalise contention and how it influenced the evolution of the key functions of universities. On that note, it is important to applaud the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa.

Hopefully the reader can agree that conversation on elitist formations within student and institutional bodies affect student movements global patterns.


Let’s reflect on the above and share the narratives as we conclude the month of June, Youth Month. Assuming that all regional development criteria have led to contention in sub-Saharan Africa’s student experiences and knowledge sharing outputs…


Are there any alternative economies or models that are suitable for continent’s higher education development?



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