Universities are often claimed to be microcosms of society with people saying understanding universities means understanding society. Rekgotsofetse Chikane says that’s not true especially at previously white universities which are bad microcosms of everyday society but a brilliant microcosm of power relations.
A Fort Hare University is very different in social relations from the University of Cape Town (UCT) or University of Witwatersrand (Wits), and the power structures at Fort Hare university don’t represent our society. UCT will have white people in charge, a black political elite fighting for elections, a group of black students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, and a group of white students from advantaged backgrounds. Those map out perfectly in terms of power relations but not in terms of everyday lived experiences. The valid argument against Fees Must Fall (FMF) – Rhodes Must Fall was a bit different – was that you were university students, and are the most privileged group of young people in the country so what’s the problem.
In the book I write about how if you graduate in this country, you will mostly likely get a job and if you don’t you are an exception to the rule. So in that respect you are not a microcosm of society. The agitation of the university is indicative of a societal agitation with the difference being we found the discourse of a single issue to target. In broad society we will eventually find that issue, and I warn in the book of the next Must Fall movement. The next Must Fall movement that falls out of the university is one we won’t be able to control, and will be representative of the anger within society.
Going into elections next year, there has been an acceptance that fallists – who are not a homogenous group – are notoriously bad at organising in formal politics. They usually defer back to Student Representative Council (SRCs) to engage in formalised politics with the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHETS). Going into elections will be fascinating as you will have some fallists who will say I am a fallist but still a part of my political party and other fallists will say you can’t be part of a political party. I keep getting asked, ‘Will fallists vote in elections?’ I think young people will vote; as for fallists I have no idea. I don’t think they will campaign and agitate because when the political party fallists mobilise they mobilise very strongly and next year is going to be become silly season. I don’t think fallists will impact elections all that much. We have lost our single issue, and I am not sure what the next issue will be for a university fallist movement. I think political parties are safe next year. I feel like I am going to regret these words when chaos breaks out but I think they are safe unless something dramatic happens.
There are very few student leaders who have been allowed access into political parties because there’s a level of mistrust of if we let you move up the ranks, ‘Can we trust you to follow the party lines?’ Political parties aren’t saying, ‘Oh yes the fallist generation, we welcome them into our doors.’ The question I ask is: If FMF hadn’t happened, would they be on this path? The answer is generally yes. Certain people became political celebrities in the student protests but a lot of the major student leaders who were part of their political parties long before the protests already had that mindset of ‘This is where I’m going to go.’ Why should we arbitrarily say just because people follow you shouldn’t promote yourself? If someone thinks they can make a change in the society, who are we to say you are not the person we want change to happen through. As long as your passion is to help the underprivileged in society because you believe our society is not functioning properly, and just don’t harm people.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Featured image by Ashraf Hendricks