The Politics of the Student Protests in South Africa


zim-ren-3On Wednesday, the 21st of October 2015, it was reported that thousands of protesting students from the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) descended on the South African Parliament ahead of the Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene’s budget policy statement.

The boisterous students forced their way through parliament’s gates and triggered a response from the South African Police Service (SAPS), which fired stun grenades as the protesters tried to force their way onto the parliamentary grounds.

It appears that the countrywide student demonstrations were inspired by protests at the University of Witwatersrand the previous week, where students were “toyi-toying” against a decision by the university’s management to increase fees by 10.5% in the 2016 academic year.

The students were also demanding free education for the poor on the basis that the African National Congress (ANC) government promised free education for the poor when it took power in 1994.

These student protests resulted in the closure of several South African tertiary institutions.

Even today, the situation has not been fully resolved despite the government announcement that fees will not increase in 2016.

As it stands, there are widespread fears that some students will not write their end-of-year exams.


The Politics of the Protests

Firstly, let me say that the protests were noble in principle, and should be commended.


In fact, when the protests began, academics across the world (myself included) watched democracy at work with esteem, even envy perhaps.


However, when I read that the South African government announced that fees would not be increased in 2016, I wondered why the Jacob Zuma administration had given in so easily, and whether their reasons for capitulating were political.


Below are some of my conclusions.


Firstly, the protests were getting out of control.


Police teargas and stun grenades were not deterring the students, and the Zuma administration could not afford another Marikana moment, especially considering that in this instance the students had global sympathy and the moral high-ground in the matter. As a result Jacob Zuma’s government capitulated.


Secondly, the students were becoming increasingly violent and rebellious.


Intelligence sources revealed that students were accusing their own student leaders of taking bribes and “selling out.”


For instance, Social Media attacks of the Wits SRC president Mcebo Dlamini included comments like:


“if you see mcebo please stab him for me,”
“needs a knife to the heart,”

These undertones of violence necessitated a political approach to the protests. The last thing the South African government needed was internationally circulated images of students stabbing and ‘necklacing’ each other.


Finally, the government yielded to student pressure because South Africa has local government elections in 2016. As a result, The Jacob Zuma administration chose not to deal with the students with a heavy hand lest the ANC lost its student support base to parties like the EFF.


In fact, when the protests began, Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters party (EFF) was ready, and perhaps even attempting to politicize the student protests to their own advantage in the same way that they politicized Marikana.


As a result Jacob Zuma’s administration knew they had to tread carefully, and decided to show some empathy for the students’ cause, not because they care about the students, but because it is good politics to pretend like they do.


Ultimately, however, I doubt that the #FeesMustFall campaign will have a lasting effect.


If anything, Universities in South Africa will find clandestine means of increasing fees. For example, they may decide to increase international student levies and quotas.


Furthermore universities are also likely to make their entrance requirements stricter in the hope that their future first year intake consists of the caliber of citizens who are not interested in strikes and protests.


The fact is that in universities across the world today you get what you pay for. Therefore the idealistic objective of “free education for the poor” is unattainable.


There are no free lunches.


In fact, if tertiary education becomes free for poor South Africans at state universities, then consequently, the rich will build private universities and that is where top tier lecturers will teach, and top tier employers will recruit.


In other words, if the “free education for the poor” objective is achieved, then inequality in South Africa will be recycled… again.

Tau Tawengwa

Executive Director


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‘Chivanhu’ in Zimbabwean Society


Firstly, ‘Chivanhu’ can be defined as the ancient spiritual and traditional practices of the Shona people.

These practices include ancestral worship, divination, witchcraft, traditional rituals and acknowledgement of holy places and shrines, to name a few.

Interestingly, the 2012 Zimbabwe census says that Zimbabwe is predominately a Christian country, as some 85% of the population claims to be Christian.

However, after digging deeper, I concur with the view that most Zimbabweans who claim to be Christian actually did not “resign from the African religion, nor did they abandon African culture completely; they have maintained dual membership.”

Traditional Beliefs in Africa

Now, until I read a report from the Washington based Pew Research Centre, I underestimated the extent and impact of traditional religious belief in Africa.

I mean, who knew that in some African countries “half or more of the population believes that sacrifices to ancestors or spirits can protect them from harm?”

Furthermore, did you know that “roughly a quarter or more of the population in 11 [African] countries say they believe in the protective power of juju (charms or amulets), shrines and other sacred objects?”

In addition, did you know that “upwards of one-in-five people in every [African] country say they believe in the evil eye [that is]… the ability of certain people to cast malevolent curses or spells?”

Now, let us zone in on Zimbabwe.

According to reports, recently, a ‘traditional healer’ from Muzarabani appeared in court in Harare.

Apparently, he stood accused of “robbing a prostitute [that] he was contracted to help ‘attract more clients.’”

It appears she welcomed the “healer” into her home to conduct ‘rituals,’ but things went south and he stole about USD1500 from her.

Elsewhere, in Masvingo, reports allege, “a 68-year-old man has been sentenced to 20 years in jail for raping his 3-year-old granddaughter on the instructions of a traditional ‘healer.’”

Apparently, the man told the court “that he raped the minor after a local traditional healer told him to bed a minor if he wanted to be rich.”

Also, in July 2015, “a 71-year-old Highfield traditional healer allegedly raped a 17 year old girl who was sent to him for a ‘cleansing’ ceremony by her family.”

Apparently, “the girl was told to engage in sex with at least nine men as part of the cleansing process.”

Rational Belief vs. Irrational Belief

This information got me thinking.

A famous German social theorist once said, “Magical and religious forces, and the ethical ideas based upon them, have… always been among the most important formative influences on the conduct of life.”

In simple terms, this means that our religious ideas and beliefs directly influence our social behavior.

So, for example, because of belief, certain tribes in East Africa continue to perform female genital mutilation as a traditionally prescribed means of controlling female libido.

Yet, my question is, how do we distinguish between rational belief and irrational belief?

In other words, how do we distinguish between ‘good faith’ and ‘bad faith’ when it comes to Chivanhu?

Personally, as a man who has several female family members and friends, it bothers me to think that there are people out there who can actually rationalize abuse, rape and pedophilia under the context of Chivanhu. Clearly, that is bad faith.

The problem, perhaps, is that Chivanhu, unlike other religious teachings, (take Christianity and Islam for instance) is not codified.

This means it does not have its teachings compiled into a single text like the Bible.

As a result, believers in Chivanhu have to rely upon unreliable and unrecorded oral history as well as dubious traditional healers for guidance.

That is not an easy thought to digest when one considers the aforementioned reports of traditional ‘healers’ who rob prostitutes and rape teenagers.

Perhaps that is why Zimbabwe appears to be a conflicted country.

On the one hand, we flaunt our Christianity and claim to have one of the most literate and educated societies in Africa.

On the other hand, we have a propensity for ‘voodoo economics’ which are best characterized by images of politicians considering whether Chivanhu can supernaturally extract diesel from a rock.

I suggest that someday, someone should rationalize Chivanhu, by summarizing all its teachings, laws and rituals into a singular text that its own believers and practitioners can be held accountable to.

A "Chivanhu" vendor displays his wares in Harare Central
Pictured: a “Chivanhu” vendor displays his wares in Harare Central


Section 19(c) of the Zimbabwean constitution emphasizes that the state must adopt policies and measures that protect children from abuse, while section 81(e) obligates the Zimbabwean state to protect children, (that is people under 18 years of age) from sexual exploitation or any form of abuse.

Of particular concern to me in these days, is the frequency of reports of abuse of infants and minor girls under the pretext of Chivanhu.

While the constitution also allows freedom of religion, perhaps it is appropriate for the state to smoke out rogue “healers” and formulate and propagate a code of conduct for Chivanhu practitioners.

Tau Tawengwa

Executive Director


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