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“What You Can’t Win in the Streets, You Can’t Win in a Boardroom”: South African activist Tshepo Madlingazi Shares Insights on Student Movements

IMG_20160328_00414227 March 2016, 7:05 PM I Despite the short notice, large groups formed at Sabarmati Dhaba to hear activist and University of Pretoria faculty member Tshepo Madlingozi discuss current South African student’s movements. His talk, “Post-Apartheid Students’ Struggles for Decolonisation in South Africa”, which emphasized the need not only for a shift in power but in a long-term decolonisation of social systems in the nation, resonated strongly with the audience. Members of the JNU community showed their solidarity with the demands for accepting different forms of nationalism, establishing a population-led movement, and accounting for intersectionality in politics.

After a brief introduction by JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar, who summarized the political situation in South Africa and emphasized the power of solidarity from JNU students undergoing similar challenges, Madlingozi took to the stage. As a way of introduction to the South African movement, Madlingozi invited the audience to engage in his local sloganeering. “When I say Amandla, you respond Awethu– meaning the power is ours!” Students and staff enthusiastically participated, and with this show of comradery his talk began.

Madlingozi first contextualized the current struggle against the backdrop of apartheid-era politics. He referenced the 1976 Soweto Youth Uprising, regarded as a major turning point in the fight against apartheid, and explained that those same revolutionaries from 40 years ago are the leaders in power against whom the students of today are fighting. The leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) became co-opted and established a neo-apartheid government which is now actually reinforcing structures of oppression.

The “born-free” youth of today, who have lived only after Nelson Mandela’s release, are told that to be nationalist means to be happy with a black government as a sign of victory. Madlingozi stressed that this is insufficient, and that “what we need is a re-imagination of ‘nationalism'”, to great applause.

Madlingozi then assessed the recent student-led movements in South Africa and drew lessons which could extend to the JNU context. #RhodesMustFall began in March 2014, and focused on the symbolic removal of a prominent statue of Cecil Rhodes (ardent colonialist and apartheid architect) from University of Cape Town campus in conjunction with a greater de-colonialisation of the school system. One and a half years later, the #FeesMustFall movement fought for the removal of both visible and invisible statues. It focused on blocking a 20% increase in university fees nationwide, on reforming its Eurocentric canon, and on the fair wages and treatment of workers. These movements garnered international solidarity and were remarkably successful, though the struggle is far from over.

Photos from the beginning of #FeesMustFall, taken on UCT campus in in October 2015

Among the noteworthy tactics utilized in these movements was the refusal to use institutional settings for negotiations, instead demanding that authorities come into the open streets to meet protesters in a transparent environment. “What you can’t win in the streets, you can’t win in a board room”, he advised. Because the state would utilize the law as a tool to suppress students’ voices, the movements resorted to “extra-legal” methods which would ensure that their voices were heard. Further innovations included the embrasure of intersectional politics, combining the language of class-consciousness with that of race and gender, as well as successfully using social media to achieve solidarity with other movements around the world.

Madlingozi concluded by reiterating his support of #StandWithJNU. He insisted that “to fight is not to be anti-patriotic”, but rather that questioning the state was a crucial responsibility of its citizens. When asked if the co-opting of each revolutions’ leaders was inevitable, he assured the audience that it is not– that so long as leaders remain accountable to the masses, the people of South Africa and India alike can feel hope for the future.


Reporting and photos by Sibel Guner, an MA student in CSSS who works for The Informer.

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