With student protests at the University of Missouri resulting in the resignation of that school’s president and concerns about Halloween costumes at Yale sparking a national debate about the commensurability of deeply held values such as free speech and anti-racism, the American conversation about what colleges and universities can and should promise students has entered a moment of reignited intensity. Some of that intensity, as Alyssa Rosenberg writes for The Washington Post, is “because of how long colleges and universities have been grappling with these issues… Missouri has yet to resolve questions from almost fifty years ago about on-campus harassment and hiring black faculty.”  

A similar conversation is raging in South Africa. In response to a 10.5% tuition fee increase, student protests at the University of the Witwatersrand have spread to many of South Africa’s universities in the second half of October. As is usual with social movements today, these protests quickly acquired their own social media hashtag, #FeesMustFall. On October 23 the protests culminated in a march on the executive seat of the South African government, the Union Buildings in Pretoria. The primary objective of the protests – getting the government to rescind the tuition increases – was accomplished when later that day the President of the country, Jacob Zuma, announced that there would be no university fee hikes in 2016.

While increased tuition fees were the present problem galvanizing South Africa’s student protests, there are deeper issues at stake. The #FeesMustFall movement follows closely on the heels of the #RhodesMustFall protests against public memorials on campuses that celebrate the perpetrators of apartheid and colonialism. The #FeesMustFall movement has also, haltingly, tried to incorporate support for campus employees against university administrations outsourcing services. Tensions continue to simmer with regard to race and language as these affect enrollment, student experience of university life, and the composition of faculty and administrations.

But much of the dissatisfaction is about conditions outside of the university. The “Born Free” generation of South Africans (born after the end of apartheid in the early 1990s) are dissatisfied with many aspects of the political order in which they find themselves, and as in the USA “how long colleges and universities” – and governments – “have been grappling with these issues” exacerbates the dissatisfaction.

Economic realities loom large for this generation. Between 2000 and 2015, the official unemployment rate in South Africa averaged at 25.27%. For people between the ages of 15 and 24, however, the unemployment rate stayed above 50% throughout the same period. In addition, South Africa is one of the most consistently unequal countries in the world in economic terms and has become increasingly unequal over the past two decades. Concern about the promises made to them – by their governments and their universities – about their own employment prospects and life chances are doubtlessly shaping the politics of this generation of South Africans.

Dissatisfaction with educational conditions under apartheid led to student protests in 1976 that galvanized a generation into political resistance that eventually led to the end of that racist political order in the 1990s. It remains to be seen if student dissatisfaction with the accomplishments of South Africa’s post-apartheid government will develop into an enduring movement, and if it does, what the character of that movement would be.

Perhaps the current disaffection will dissipate as students are either coopted into government or become overwhelmed by the sheer struggle for survival. Perhaps the disaffection will find partisan expression within the current constitutional democracy, with students increasingly supporting political parties other than the African National Congress, which has governed the country since the end of apartheid. Or perhaps the disaffection will expand into a revolutionary dissatisfaction with South Africa’s democratic constitutional order as such.

Like the rest of Africa, South Africa has a growing and youthful population with enormous energies to be unleashed for good or for ill. How these energies are directed will depend on how this generation comes to think and feel about the political arrangements that they are inheriting. Their public opinions and popular sentiments will be shaped by contending stories with regard to what is politically imaginable for their future.

And, in a world increasingly connected via trade, media, and migration, the stories that students in South Africa and the USA will come to believe and live by will interact and will in their interaction shape the world in which all of our children will make their lives. As Ms. Rosenberg writes, “Whether Yale and Missouri are judged to have responded well to their current crises may be come down to whether they hire more black faculty or improve mental health services. The real hero in American higher education, though, might just be the college or university president who steps forward to talk honestly about what institutions of higher learning can really offer their students in the first place.” Similar heroes are needed in South Africa.


Gideon Strauss is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Public Justice and Associate Professor in Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies


Photo credit: Discott, Wikimedia Commons.