The Racial And Generational Politics Behind South Africa's #FeesMustFall Protests

To understand where the #FeesMustFall protests came from and where they're going we must address the complicated racial politics behind them

The #FeesMustFall protests Thursday, October 22, in Johannesburg. (Photo: Kgomotso Neto Tleane)

Nelson Mandela famously said, “Education is the most powerful tool we have to change the world.” But he also urged a newly independent South Africa to recall, "if the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government."

Last week’s images of South African students squaring off against police have brought Mandela’s famous edict to the forefront and, for many South Africans, prompted memories of 1976, the year of the infamous Soweto uprising.

The #NationalShutDown in Cape Town on Wednesday, October 21. (Photo: Imraan Christian)

Beginning at Wits University and spreading to over 20 universities across the country, students declared that #FeesMustFall in response to a proposed tuition increase at South Africa’s top schools. The standoff began after Wits proposed a 10.5% increase in tuition fees over the next few years, citing declines in states subsidies, the increasing cost of infrastructure and utilities, and the unstable rand.

Launching a full-fledged national shutdown, students blocked roads and entrances, sparking the suspension of classes at some universities.

A proposed alternative 6% fee hike by Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande did little to appease the frustrated students, who responded to the idea with boos and chants of “Asiyifuni iagenda yama capitalist"—we don't want the capitalist's agenda.

On Thursday, hundreds of students stormed the Parliament gates in protest before marching on Luthuli House, the headquarters of the African National Congress. The following day, South African President Jacob Zuma announced that there would be no fee increase for 2016.

Students prepare to march on Luthuli House in Johannesburg, Thursday, October 22. (Photo: Kgomotso Neto Tleane)

But the fight for fairness is far from over. To understand where the student protests came from and where they are going we must address the complicated racial politics that undergird the national debate on tuition fees.

#FeesMustFall and #NationalShutdown were the largest protests in South Africa since the end of apartheid. While the protests succeeded in stopping the fee increase, they’ve also exposed the growing chasm between the “born free” generation and the ANC elite who spearheaded the apartheid struggle. Nearly two decades after white rule, rampant inequality persists, limiting opportunities for black South Africans to pursue higher education. Young South Africans are increasingly refusing to accept this reality.

Earlier this year, students took to social media to demand that a bronze figure of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes be removed from the University of Cape Town. In a spirited protest that included the popular hashtag #RhodesMustFall, an occupation of campus buildings, and even a bucket of human excrement thrown at the offending statute, black South African students signaled their frustration with the status quo of white supremacy.

In #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall, students’ anger is well founded. At the 13th annual Nelson Mandela Lecture at the University of Johannesburg on October 3, renowned French economist Thomas Piketty noted that the top 10 percent of South Africans, a majority of whom are white, earn between 60 percent to 65 percent of total income—making it clear the black economic empowerment policies have failed.

Racial transformation in South Africa’s universities is happening at a snail’s pace. While blacks make up nearly 80 percent of the country’s population, they are less than a quarter of the University of Cape Town’s student body—and only 5 percent of its faculty. Moreover, the Economist notes that there are just 28 black South African female professors in the entire nation.

Confronting white supremacy means confronting the ways in which South African institutional structures continue to privilege white South Africans. Universities, the fulcrum of progressive thought, should be at the center of this exercise. Demographics should shift to reflect South Africa’s composition, but programs should be crafted in ways cognizant of black South Africans’ developmental and cultural needs. As Wits student Dylan Barry recently noted in an op-ed for the Daily Maverick, “being intelligent [in South Africa] is not good enough if you are poor.” Especially if you are black.

Although the number of black students attending South African universities has increased significantly since the end of apartheid, educational inequality is deeply entrenched due to poor instruction and limited resources in townships and rural areas. While inequality is the product of apartheid, with each passing year, its explanatory power fades. Instead, South Africans increasingly look to poor government policy as a key factor in the ongoing racially-based income divide.

While critics cite the example of a growing black middle class as an example of progress, first-generation middle-class families commonly face the challenge of supporting their extended poorer relations. A disproportionate share of wealth and land still belong to the country’s white elite.

#FeesMustFall protests outside the Union Buildings in Pretoria on Friday, October 23. (Photo: Gulshan Khan)

In protesting not only at universities, but also at the gates of Parliament, South African students have highlighted that the burden of changing the fee structure of higher education cannot only lie with the country’s universities—the government must also take responsibility.

As David Dickinson, Professor of Sociology at Wits University, notes: “the cost of studying at these universities outstrips the maximum funding made available by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS)” to the tune of up to R40,000 (slightly under $3000)—nearly one quarter of South Africa’s average per capita income. As educational subsidies decrease, universities are unable to meet the gap in cost of instruction. Even top universities like Wits have been forced to turn away as many as 3000 eligible students who were unable to pay.

Even as President Zuma grants the students a temporary reprieve from the fee increases, a weak rand coupled with climbing national debt and the threat of a credit rating downgrade hints that the worst is not over. A comprehensive strategy must be developed that takes into consideration the structural and societal dynamics that perpetuate cycles of black poverty.

Today, South Africa’s “born free” generation makes up over 40 percent of the population. Unlike older generations, the ANC cannot command born frees’ allegiance through emotional appeals based on the legacy of apartheid. As support for the ruling party slowly declines, its failure to deliver on its promises will be its undoing. The student-activists who have launched the #NationalShutDown are determined to force the South African government to turn its democratic dream of a rainbow nation into a reality.

Akinyi Ochieng is a writer and researcher of Gambian and Kenyan origin who studies the culture and politics of emerging markets. You can follow her on Twitter @kikiochieng or on her blog.


This Is What Rotimi's 'Walk With Me' EP Listening Party Looked Like

The Nigerian singer held an intimate listening party on the eve of the release of his new EP, 'Walk With Me,' at Brooklyn's Okay Space.

Walk With Me, Rotimi's new and highly anticipated EP, dropped Friday—giving us a seven-track peek into who the singer and actor truly is sonically.

The night before, the Nigerian-American crooner gathered over 100 tastemakers and day-one supporters to Brooklyn's Okay Space—the shared gallery space between Okayplayer and OkayAfrica—for an intimate listening party celebrating the release, as well as his music video for "Love Riddim" which also dropped this week.

The night was simply a vibe—folks enjoyed libations and bites from The Suya Guy, with sounds by DJ Tunez. Rotimi opened the gathering up with a thoughtful prayer, with the music video reveal to follow. The singer then walked the audience through each track from Walk With Me, opening up about the creative process of how each track came to life.

Following, Rotimi engaged in an even more in-depth Q+A session with OkayAfrica's arts and culture editor, Antoinette Isama, where he touched on his experience touring with Wizkid back in 2011, his thoughts on the continued rise in popularity afrobeats is having in mainstream music, his hopes for the future and more. Tunez then ran the EP back when the party ensued, as the project is full of tracks that are worthy of being on repeat.

Listen to Walk With Me below, and be sure to take a look at photos from the listening party by Nerdscarf Photography.

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CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 16: Director Ladj Ly and Almamy Kanoute attend the photocall for "Les Miserables" during the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival on May 16, 2019 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

How To Survive Cannes Film Festival As a Black Filmmaker

A film festival is intense by nature, but Cannes is a whirlwind.

Cannes Film Festival is one of the world's most prestigious gatherings bringing celebrities, filmmakers and actors claiming to celebrate the world's best film. Although the festival is way behind Sundance or the London Film Festival regarding diversity efforts, it remains the place to be if you're a filmmaker—especially a Black one.

I, myself, am a Black French filmmaker who was invited to Cannes as part of their scheme for young film lovers—3 Days in Cannes—open to anyone between the ages of 18 and 28. The scheme, which launched in 2018, requires young hopefuls to write a cover letter showing their passion for film. It ultimately gives young people the opportunity to discover the international selection of films showed at Cannes.

READ: Black Women Are the Future of French Cinema—When Will Cannes Catch Up?

Being in Cannes for the first time was a wonderful experience, but it can be tough to navigate as a Black filmmaker if you're not prepared for it. So, here are top tips.

1) Don't be a person of color—especially if you're Black (Just kidding. But still.)

Cannes is a beautiful, posh city in the south of France. It is part of the Provence Alpes Côte d'Azur, an administrative region where the far right party Rassemblement National (formally known as the National Front) hits record-breaking highs. Despite the fact that the festival is incredibly international, at times it can feel pretty racist, like a sunny, idyllic version of 1960s Alabama, where a party of more than one Black person gets routinely rejected from some clubs/bars/restaurants. On top of that, the staff and some of the security working at the festival can be incredibly aggressive and rude to you and in French. If you don't understand it, it's even more confusing.

To avoid it, try to stick to the official Cannes parties, or hang out in international hotels like the Miramar or the Radisson Blu Hotel—which are used to an international crowd. You can also stick to parties at the various country pavilions near the Film Market.

2) Stick to the African Pavilion

At the festival, most countries have their own pavilion. But because the festival believes Africa is a country, all 54 countries are gathered in one pavilion. This pavilion also includes the Caribbean, since Jamaica, as life would have it, is also an African country. In the African Pavilion, there was even talk on how to submit films if you're a filmmaker of Indian descent (despite the fact that India had its own pavilion).

You're not African? That's okay, no one cares. Pan-Africanism is still alive, I guess? Thankfully, out of the many pavilions, I did find the African Pavilion was the best one the most welcoming and whose schedule was the most open and clear. Because Cannes is such an exclusive festival, most of the parties and talks won't be communicated outside of those who are supposed to attend.

The African Pavilion, however, requires you to sign up to their newsletter. You then access their app where you can see the schedule, the talks to attend and the party they planned. The only downside is that they were understaffed, so some talks and events were cancelled last minute and with limited communication.

If you're a Black French filmmaker, speaking English is a must to get the most out of the pavilion. If you're an English-speaking filmmaker, try to make friends or meet people who speak French, as some of the talks/discussions might not have professional interpreters.

Also, go to the events organized by diversity in Cannes. Now, if you're a Black filmmaker who would rather not stay in the community for fear of being pigeonholed? Unless you're part of a talent scheme run by the festival...good luck getting others to support you.

3) Be ready to WAIT to see films and to party

On average, I waited 1 hour 40 minutes for each film I wanted to see in the official selection program. And I purposely chose not to see the famous ones like the Pedro Almodóvar or Quintin Tarantino's films. I also waited almost two hours to see a film from the Un certain regard selection and didn't get in—despite my pass. Now, Un certain regard has the most highly sought after films, even more so than the Competition, because they tend to select the best among indie international films. To get in for sure, you need a "Un certain regard" pass, so they need to invite you themselves. Even if you have a ticket at the counter, you might not get in unless you wait two hours (standing) or choose to attend the early screening or the late ones (and still, you should be ready to wait 1 hour for these).

You need a pass AND a ticket to see the films from the official selection and walk the red carpet up to the Grand Théatre Debussy. For the ACID, Director's fortnight, Semaine de la critique, and the Official selection's films not shown on the red carpet, you just need a pass—and to be ready to queue for at least 45 minutes.

I wouldn't recommend getting the Cannes cinephile pass as it has a low priority. I saw people waiting 2 hours to see a film and not getting in, while people with professional Black passes arriving 10 minutes before the screening walking past them. Because the Cannes festival is for professionals, they have, unfortunately, priority over members of the public.

Now, with the parties at Cannes, word on the street is that they are not as legendary as they used to be. Even if you get invited to one, you still need to wait an hour. It's not because they are over capacity, but rather they feel the need to pretend that they are. Unless you're a VVIP. And if you're one, why are you reading my article?

Anyway, despite not being as glamorous as they used to be, they remain so exclusive that if your name is not on the list, you might need to sell your first born to attend.

Thankfully, you can avoid it by being smart. When I arrived in Cannes, I was dead set on going to parties to network. Since almost all of them are invite only, I went to the parties at the pavilions, like the UK one, the American one (which costs 20 euros because Americans are always about their money) and the African Pavilion—that were kind enough to facilitate networking by introducing me to fellow filmmakers. God knows how talking to strangers and building new relationships can be difficult, and they made it easier.

4) Make friends with distributors or people working for the Mayor's office

The whole point of the festival is to sell films. Tickets are sparse for most people, so some badge holders wear their Sunday Best and stand outside the grand theater, holding signs asking for tickets. It makes sense that distributors are incredibly powerful, since they have the power to buy and sell films internationally. They are given way too many tickets that should be given to people waiting for hours outside.

So, if you make friends with distributors, they will always have a handful of spare tickets, even for the big ones that everyone wants to see. They also have tickets for the big parties as well. Press badge holders also have priority since they are responsible for a film good or bad media coverage. So they have a handful of tickets too.

People working for the Mayor's office also have tickets because they work closely together since the festival brings so much revenue to the city. Make friends with them, as well as film students and you'll get tickets. Don't know where to find them? Social media is your friend.

There is also another way to get tickets to films: the staff. For example, I couldn't get tickets to see Mati Diop's Atlantiques. I walked to the ticket counter and saw a Black woman with a great hairstyle. My instinct KNEW I had to tag along. I asked her if she needed help. She was looking for the same tickets. We asked someone at the ticket office if they could help. They said they had nothing. But one of the staff members saw us and said she could try to help us. She came back with two tickets and that's how I got to see the film. I got lucky and was cunning. So be nice with the staff, they can help.

5) Be ready for anything

A film festival is intense by nature, but Cannes is a whirlwind. Since you're spending so much time waiting and walking from venues to venues, you won't have time to eat unless you bring food you've made before hand. You're not allowed to eat inside the theaters and if you walk the red carpet, you food is thrown out beforehand. You can try buying food and drinks in the morning and finish it by the time you walk the red carpet. I'd advise buying it at a supermarket like the pricey Monoprix. Or the nearby McDonald's. It's cheap, warm, almost always open and a great way to socialize! Young filmmakers, as well as those from Britain and the States will come to McDonald's to eat since it's one of the places they know best. Why not strike up a convo there?

Also, don't forget your power bank. Your phone will get out of battery for sure, especially if you post content on social media.

Finally, despite its reputation, the festival is incredibly badly organized. You will be told that your badge is not allowed to watch films at other selections, or you would be given the wrong directions and will be lost in the croisette on your way to see an obscure film.

Chill, be ready to walk and use Google Maps. And enjoy!


Julie Adenuga: "There Are Young Artists In Nigeria Who Are Changing the World"

In an exclusive interview, the Beats 1 radio presenter opens up about her Nigerian heritage, documenting Homecoming in Lagos, and London being an important hub for afro-fusion sounds.

Julie Adenuga sits at the intersection of two continents.

As an affable tastemaker who transforms banal interviews into engaging conversations with some of the most famous artists in the world, Julie is leading the global dialogue on new music from her daily radio show, which broadcasts to over 100 countries.

The North London native of Nigerian descent hails from a musical family, her brothers are artists Skepta and JME, and has risen from the underground as a self-taught presenter on former pirate radio station Rinse FM to being one of three lead DJ's with her Beats 1 show on Apple Music.

A champion of homegrown talent in the UK and across the African diaspora, Julie is a purveyor of the afro-fusion genre, as is evident in her recent Homecoming documentary, which captured the fresh innovators from the Lagos music scene, and her DON't @ ME club nights, which has featured Ghetts, Lady Leshurr and The Compozers as residents.

Chosen as one of OkayAfrica's 100 Women celebrating extraordinary women from Africa and the diaspora, we speak with the presenter and broadcaster on owning her Nigerian identity, the responsibility of spreading afrobeats and why London is a key location for the genre.

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