Student Protests: The Canary’s Song in the Neoliberal Coal Mine

The Fees Must Fall Movement has been spoken about in many different contexts among many different people. It seems there was nary a wood clad coffee shop or black and white photograph donned bar where people would not sit and discuss the matter at hand. Opinions are plentiful. What many of these discussions ignore is that South Africans are not separate from the rest of the world. Our troubles are not unique and our disdain with politics is certainly not exceptional. The examples of rising populist movements around the globe are evidence of this, as are the student protests that we have seen in the last decade.

Student protests have occurred throughout history. In recent years even countries that (from where we’re standing) have money enough to ensure that their people are cushioned by welfare experience disdain with the decisions that are made by those in power. In 2010 the UK experienced widespread student protests in reaction to proposed spending cuts on education and, again, in November of 2016 in reaction to the government wanting to allow University fees to reflect their ranking. In France in 2006 the student protests arose in opposition to a new bill entitled “The Equal Opportunity Bill” as it would affect students when they entered the job market making it easier for new, young employees to be fired.

The comparison of student protests with those that are happening in South Africa does not end with European examples. Chile experienced widespread student protests from 2011 to 2013 that demanded that promises for free education made by government should be kept and that a new framework for education was needed in a country where inequality remains high and the number of public universities has not increased in over two decades. Columbian students protested against proposed education reforms in 2011 angry at the thought that their education system may begin to resemble that of Chile’s. In 2014 the students of Hong Kong showed their discontent with the electoral system through protests and actions of civil disobedience. As protestors around the world act out against neoliberalism, a disturbing feature of these actions is the reaction by those in power to include heavy-handed force.

The University of Missouri in the US in 2015 and 2016 also experienced demonstrations. Here the protesting students were seeking inclusion, in particular, for black students. These students were demanding that their university become a safer space as multiple incidents of racism and other acts of bigotry appeared on campus. In the days after these students successfully saw the resignation of the chancellor of the flagship campus (the man deemed to have mishandled the reports of racism) black students received threats and racial tensions remained on campus.

The few examples that appear above begin to weave a story of the dissatisfaction that is displayed by students of the greater society in which they are living. The activism seems to be evidence of their loss of trust in the traditional political system. Can it be that the systems we have in place are out-dated and are no longer able to serve the will of the people?

The protests are born from rising income inequality and exclusion that appears in countries across the globe and, as the structural problems continue to be ignored, there can only be more discontent to come. Neoliberal policies haven’t brought the utopian world that was promised by policy makers and, like in Chile and South Africa, students cannot afford to close the gap that continues to widen as a result. In the very recent protest that took place in the UK, policies put forward by the Conservative Party will further increase the exclusivity of tertiary institutions and could mean increased privatisation of education (a problem that was part of creating the context of the Chilean protests) and, with the increasing of the privatisation of education, there will be an increase in the inequality in society.

In South Africa, tertiary education has been held up by students as the solution to an equation that has been left unsolved for decades but, with corruption rife and accountability low, there will be far more changes needed to dam the leak that has sprung in the dyke of the current system. Addressing the discontent with neoliberal policies is something that is avoided by those in power as the status quo is one in which they are allowed to remain in command. The protestors that appear are looking for real representation that will be able to address those issues that lie beneath their grievances.

When protesting students appear in a country, they appear as a symptom of a much larger disease and this problem is one that is not solely South African. Wealth disparity grows on a global scale and, as we see those few at the top play fast and loose with the fates of millions, restlessness will breed and students will continue to play the role of canaries in the coal mine alerting those in power to the trouble that lurks should they fail to address the inadequacies of the neoliberal system.


Writing: Anthea Taylor

Illustration: Cult of Pedagogy