The role of #Fallist movements in eroding campus freedoms
This is the third article in a five part series. The previous installment can be found here.
What role did the #Fallist movements have in eroding freedoms on campus?
The year 2015 saw the rise of a leftist student movement operating under hashtags such as #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall, #TuksSoWhite, #OpenStellenbosch and #AfrikaansMustFall.
The creep towards aggressive, threatening and disruptive behaviour in lecture theatres began to be evident in late 2014 and early 2015.
The phenomenon of protests, which reflected a social justice ethos taking shape, was triggered by #RhodesMustFall.
The coalescence of the phenomena of political correctness, identity politics and the victimhood culture were triggered when Chumani Maxwele threw faeces over the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town (UCT).
There appears to have been no indication at UCT that the campus was going to explode in March 2015. The #RhodesMustFall campaigners had never raised grievances about the statue before. The statue had been discussed some years previously with staff, but it hadn’t earned the attention of students. None of the issues the students raised at the time became issues of the protest. One of the issues, which were fairly prosaic, was the long-standing demand for accommodation.
Maxwele graduated in 2017 at the age of 33 and after seven years’ study. Even at his graduation he couldn’t resist shouting insults at former Vice-Chancellor Dr. Max Price while he was capping him – an irony without parallel since many believe that Price had ideologically supported Maxwele.
There is also evidence that Maxwele’s action may have been an outsourced act of revenge engineered by Iqbal Survé, the owner of Independent Media. Price asked Survé to stand down from his positions at UCT due to the controversy over his firing of Alide Dasnois, the editor of the Cape Times.
Price had then invited Dasnois to give a graduation address at the end of 2014, not realising that Survé’s daughter was graduating and Surve was present.1.
The eruption of the #RhodesMustFall protests and their success gave impetus to the destructive protests that followed on the country’s campuses from 2015 to 2017.
A good case can be made – and there are certainly staff and students who would make it – that had UCT management handled Maxwele’s initial act with appropriate firmness, the next two years might not have been so fraught.
Maxwele was not sanctioned in terms of UCT’s disciplinary rules and it quickly became clear that UCT authorities were going to approve the removal of the statue. It was, in other words, a stunning victory achieved through activism that was self-consciously confrontational, uncivil and – in invoking racial nationalism – inherently divisive. An indecent act of grandstanding and angry rhetoric gained traction to become a “movement”.
As in America, local protest movements drew in students who had genuine grievances and needs, which either were not being or could not be met.
Except for toppling the statue, the movement had no formal structure or philosophy, but it morphed into a range of different movements in different places. Neither the #RhodesMustFall nor the #OpenStellenbosch movements have any clear manifestoes or a concrete explanation of what exactly they mean by ‘transformation’ or what exactly they wanted.
These movements didn’t start the erosion of freedoms on campuses, but they gave it a huge impetus. The protests weren’t simply about a statue or about fees or about accessibility. Fallism is an ideological movement which at its root is opposed to the notions of individual freedom and self-fulfilment.
During 2016, the grievances of protesters around the country ranged from the demand for a ‘no fee’ increase, to a demand for free university education, to allegations of management’s support of a ‘rape culture’, to the removal of Afrikaans as the first language of instruction, to the creation of gender neutral toilets, to the removal of ‘colonial’ influences and to demands for more student accommodation.
These were demands that couldn’t always be met, no matter the attitude of university management bodies. No university in the country can exist without the payment of fees. Fee-free education could only have been granted by the government (a doubtful if not wholly unsustainable prospect in view of the country’s deteriorating fiscal state). The facts supporting condonation of a rape culture couldn’t be clarified. The removal of colonial influence was aggressively sought but unclear. Court action ultimately resulted in the demotion of Afrikaans at Stellenbosch.
Backlogs in accommodation was an issue universities were desperately trying to resolve – it had been a longstanding and well-acknowledged problem – but the protesters paid no heed. This resulted in the #Shackville protests at UCT, which led to the infamous burning of works of art, damage to university vehicles and invasions of residences.
One of the reasons for the impunity and violence that dogged these three years was the failure by some university managements to take a harsh or sufficiently harsh line by disciplining and criminally charging accused students. In the case of UCT, it was also about the appeasing – and unlawfully agreeing to amnesty for – the most egregious actors despite their expulsion that was the most problematic.
There is no doubt, however, that in the face of threats, anger and occupations, doing otherwise would have required an extraordinary amount of courage on the part of management. Management also had to deal with academics and administrative staff who supported the students.
If management needed to get police onto campus, sympathetic academic staff accused management of ‘securitising the campus’ as was done during apartheid.
Perhaps unwittingly, this showed the moral inversion that was taking place. Those wishing to protect the perpetrators of the Fallist-directed chaos view seemed unfazed that democratic societies have to protect their citizens from violence first and foremost. Thus the rights of protesters to act violently have to concede to the rights of others not to be subject to violence. Society has to work this way to avoid descending into lawlessness. Yet here, ideology trumped all.
Negotiation to deal with demands was extremely difficult. The demands were unclear, the process of negotiation wasn’t understood by the students, demands kept changing, as did the representatives to the negotiations. Key to resolving any dispute by negotiation is involvement by the same negotiators throughout the process so that consistency is achieved and administrations weren’t faced with new demands.
Sometimes management would be forced into embarrassing confrontations where they were instructed to say or do something meant to demean them in front of a crowd. Often they were just shouted down when they tried to communicate.
Other than indistinct demands, another feature of the Fallist movement was a lack of real leadership. While some people were clearly at the forefront of the protests, the movements generally adopted a position of being leaderless – they claimed to be democratic movements in which all were equal.
Without real leaders and structures, and without demands that were legitimate or could be met, the Fallist movements eventually burnt themselves out.
Perhaps this was indicative of the ‘chaos’ that Prof Suellen Shay had talked about – and a refutation of the possibility of ‘engaging’ with it.
What has been left, to a greater or lesser degree, is a dominant, ‘progressive’ culture that continues to gnaw at the continued presence of classical liberals in the humanities, a political correctness in behaviours that lack reason or logic, and an increased, and arguably inappropriate, role for administrative staff.
Three-years of Fallism resulted in damage of nearly R800 million on South Africa’s campuses. Some may see a slide in their reputations from which they’ll struggle to recover. Chaos indeed.
Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823. (Smses cost R1 Ts and Cs apply). This is the third of a five-part series produced with the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.
1. Ed Herbst: Portents of anarchy – A pre-arranged #RMF agenda?, BizNews, Thought Leaders, 15 March 2016