Fees Must Fall: Student Revolt in Post-Apartheid South Africa

student strike documents and handbills




Director, Comparative Literature Program; Professor of English and Comparative Literature

Project Summary

The goal of my research was to analyze the consequences and achievements of Fees Must Fall movement as a modern student revolt in South Africa, with particular emphasis on the movement’s relation to postcolonial studies. These protests have been described in wildly divergent ways. Political theorist Achille Mbembe has called them “gray and almost murky” and a “negative moment” for South Africa, while students involved in this movement call it “decolonizing education.” From 2015 to 2018, the students’ demands have expanded to include increased housing for low income students, more diverse faculty, less Eurocentric curricula, and, most importantly, free public higher education. It has increased its numbers, forged ties to political organizations and trade unions, and faced increasingly violent confrontations with police. Universities have been bombed, burned, and shut down for months at a time. Though the question at the center of the movement, in the words of the students themselves, has always been “why do black students still feel so alienated at South African universities?” It has been 25 years since the end of apartheid and black citizens make up almost 90 percent of South Africa’s population. The students in this movement are called “Born-Frees” in South Africa. They have no memory of fighting against apartheid, but they are questioning how much South Africa has really changed.

While in South Africa I was able to come closer to the raw emotions and differing intentions of this movement than I ever could have in the United States. I met with professors who talked to me about their predicament in supporting the students while questioning the use of violence. These professors pointed me to many of the academic papers being written right now about the Fees Must Fall movement in departments across South Africa from political science, to sociology, literature, and economics. I met with students who gave me first person accounts of the complex turn of events that became two years of protests and unrest. They gave me magazines, pamphlets, and other publications written by students about the protests. I also visited museums and archives to better grasp the role of protests, in particular student protests, in the history of South Africa. I now have much more material to work with and much fuller perspective. This project will be my senior thesis and without my three weeks of research in South Africa, I would not be able to approach it with the same knowledge and excitement.