Profs. discuss South African student unrest

For The News-Letter

Sean Jacobs, assistant professor of International Affairs at The New School in New York, and Dan Magaziner, an associate professor of history at Yale University, spoke on Friday about the student protests in South Africa. Since mid-October, students of several South African universities have been protesting a proposed 11.5 percent tuition hike announced by President Jacob Zuma.

Major South African universities have been shut down since Oct. 19. Protests spread to other college campuses where students have taken to the streets and have occupied government buildings. Many of these protests were met by police armed with stun grenades and tear gas. On Oct. 21, students forced their way into Parliament. Support for the protests grew on Twitter, and the resulting hashtag, #FeesMustFall, gave the movement its name.

On Oct. 23, President Jacob Zuma met with stakeholders and caved to the students’ demands to cut the fee increase for 2016. Despite this announcement, students have continued to protest for free public education and the elimination of labor outsourcing on campuses.

Jacobs and Magaziner explained their opinions on the causes and the future of the student protests.

Jacobs first clarified that the events are still ongoing, which makes it difficult to predict what will happen next.

“We are talking about a protest where we don’t know where it’s going,” Jacobs said. “It’s unfolding as we speak.”
Dr. Jacobs then gave his opinion on the nature of the student protests.

“The first thing to say about this right now is that this is not a revolution,” Jacobs said. “I don’t know where it’s going, I can only describe what is happening right now but primarily this is a student protest.”

Jacobs drew attention to previous student protests to give weight to his opinion, citing the fact that students are a tiny portion of the South African population that are disproportionately white and have little political sway. He was clear that this movement is not as transformational as the protests that ended Apartheid in the 1990s.

“Just to put it in perspective that this is a very small segment of society, if you review the statistics for tertiary education in South Africa, you find that South Africa has a population of approximately 50 million,” he said. “Well, there are just more than one million students at tertiary institutions. We are talking about two percent of South Africa’s population.”

The protests started on a small scale, but grew quickly.

“Earlier this year there were protests aimed at the removal of a colonial era statue of Cecil Rhodes on the University of Cape Town campus. They demanded that the statue be removed, it was very spectacular,” Jacobs said. “Eventually the statue was removed. Then, there was a lull in the protests which eventually erupted later with the news of an increase of tuition fees.”

Magaziner spoke of the history and nature of confrontational politics in South Africa at the panel.

“What we are beginning to see here is the politics of confrontation as its own end becomes the goal of the students. Having announced that the students have something to say on the politics of the country, students are now going to say it and see what happens,” he said.

Magaziner shared that students are unsure of the outcome of the event, but they are taking this opportunity to use their voices. He talked about the difficulties that black South Africans face when attending colleges. If the fee increases had been enacted, many students, predominantly black, would have been forced to drop out.

“What we see in this moment of South Africa, it is similar in the sense that we see this demographic super minority, this small group of people within the university setting who have university grievances, but by airing them in a way that provokes confrontation, it sets loose energy in society where the outcome is something you can’t predict,” Magaziner said. “Will there be some sort of dramatic change in South Africa? I don’t know. What I do know is that it has happened before and so perhaps we might see it happen again.”

Junior Corey Payne attended the event and found the panel engaging.

“The topic of the panel was particularly interesting. Students in South Africa who have long been oppressed by racist and classist institutions are rising up to say “no more!” At a university like ours — an institution that has had a long history of playing a role in a similar race-and class-based oppression — it is important to learn about the struggles of people around the world,” Payne wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “Academic panels like this — covering events largely ignored by the national media — serve both as a mode of learning and a call for solidarity.”

The event was planned by Assistant Professor of English Jeanne-Marie Jackson. Jackson spoke to how the protests are relevant to Hopkins students.

“I thought [the panel] might be something people would be interested in. I talked to my boss in Africana Studies and her colleague in International Studies, and they said it sounded great,” Jackson said. “At the same time, I had been contacting Dan [Magaziner] from Yale and Sean [Jacobs] and asked if they’d be up for it, and we settled on Friday.”

Jackson also spoke how the protests are relevant to Hopkins students.

“I think that there is a lot of value for Johns Hopkins students in seeing people exactly their age at universities of a similar tier in admittedly a very different higher education system have taken their concerns to the streets so to speak,” Jackson said.
Jackson considered the discussion success and was happy to see people from various departments come together.

“We had really good turnout for this time of year. I was happy to see faculty and some students from a range of departments,” Jackson said.

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