“Another University Is Possible”: Thoughts on Student Protests and Universities in Postcolonial Africa

The modern university is an efficient site for the neoliberal commoditizing of knowledge.

“Another University Is Possible”: Thoughts on Student Protests and Universities in Postcolonial Africa

VARIOUS COMMENTATORS, both in and beyond South Africa, are currently documenting and interpreting the waves of student protests in this country. These protests initially focused on the Higher Education and Training Minister’s announcement of massive fee increases, but the student call to reject the fee increase from 2016 has morphed into a broad-based movement focusing on South Africans’ constitutional rights to social justice and equality. At the time of this writing, student groupings at several campuses are continuing to act on the call to challenge University Management, the Education Department, and institutional arrangements that sanction inflated HE fees, the exploitation of outsourced workers on campuses, and the non-transformation of universities curricula, staffing, and student admission arrangements.

In my own effort to understand these movements, I’ve begun to reflect increasingly on regional and continent-wide processes. I have been reminded of two in particular: on the one hand, the use of crowdsourcing citizen journalism that culminated in Ushahidi (literally, “testimony” in Swahili), originally an activist movement that gathered knowledge from below in the wake of the violence in Kenya during 2007; and on the other, the centrality of student protest, also driven predominantly by crowdsourcing and ICT activism, at the core of the Egyptian revolutions from 2011.

The Kenyan, Egyptian, and South African examples clarify new forms and repercussions of African student struggles, and what their immediate, national, regional, and global targets seem to be. In particular, they reveal how the new knowledge economy dramatically opens up unprecedented platforms for communication, association, and mobilization through ICT activism. They also demonstrate what it can and has put in place: institutionalizing commoditized knowledge and knowledge-consumers (students) in which universities, far from being liberal-humanist places of disinterested elitist knowledge production, are tied more tightly than ever to big businesses, specifically, and the neoliberal market economy in general. Universities in Africa are in fact tied very directly to the state — often in ways that are different from institutional affiliations in the North.

Several critics of neoliberalism have identified its significance to the evolution of Northern universities. Alex Callinicos, Stuart Hall, Terry Eagleton, and Margaret Thornton, among others, analyze the legacy of massive liberalization since the 1980s, arguing that an effort to cauterize the humanities has been integral to the efficacy of the neoliberal project: the production of market-driven knowledge and skills devoid of the philosophical and theoretical legacies, tools, research cultures, and public discourses that enable critical responses to the status quo. Universities, they show, have increasingly become sites for supporting the status quo, both in their teaching methods, the managerialist bureaucracies they set in place to monitor academics, and the methods of teaching they encourage. Rather than being spaces for promoting imaginative and animated scholarship focusing on the humanities, the modern university, which privileges the hard sciences and downplays the humanities, is an efficient site for the neoliberal commoditizing of knowledge.

On one hand, the South African #FMF movement (Fees Must Fall) draws on the impetus of the early 2015 #RhodesMustFall movement. But FMF, as articulated by students, emphasizes that today’s post-apartheid state has betrayed the anti-apartheid pact to provide equal opportunities for all citizens. Fees Must Fall has been redefined as a movement concerned with the commodification of education and the role of HE institutions in a broader political and economic system exploiting workers, with students linking their struggles against unequal education to universities’ outsourcing of their workers to cut their costs.

In what follows, I explore what neoliberalism, the knowledge economy, and struggles at universities tell us about the impetus behind, and forms of, struggles in neocolonial African countries. I also consider how these struggles tap into, uncover, and respond to especially pernicious forms of domination, oppression, and exploitation. A novel by Egyptian writer, Alaa Al Aswany, has prompted me to think through the layers of a moment in South Africa with reference to continental and global processes. Aswanys’s literary vision in The Yacoubian Building is strongly influenced by his work as a journalist. Encouraging readers to make personalized and detailed sense of politics and history in ways that only fiction can do, the novel also, it seems to me, registers an acute documentary understanding of the quotidian — of what actual people think, feel, and do in response to their social and political worlds.

“The System” and “Student Activism”

In reading Aswany’s Yacoubian Building several years ago, I was struck not only by his prophetic insight into Egyptian politics, but also his prescient grasp of postcolonial African economies, politics, and institutional cultures. The book is a fascinating frame through which to view not only Egypt a few years ago, but also South Africa right now. Describing the inhabitants of an actual building as a microcosm of Egyptian society in the early 1990s, he fictionalizes themes of corruption, police brutality, class exploitation, and tyrannical rule, as well as the political outrage that drove many Egyptians during that period, such as the student Taha, to embrace revolutionary action. The narrative conveys the social tensions that led up to the Egyptian Revolution in January 2011 — a revolution that follows the novel’s writing, but which the author anticipates.

The Yacoubian Building — where the poor live in make-shift dwellings on the roof while the rich live or work in large apartments below — mirrors a rigid and vast class divide. This divide exposes enormous disparities between the small but enormously wealthy and powerful postcolonial elite on the one hand and the working and unemployed on the other. It is a divide peculiar to neoliberal class configurations in African contexts, including Uganda, South Africa, Egypt, Kenya, and many other countries. The true middle classes often live very different lives from the conspicuous affluence of an elite[1], while the poor often rely on an economy at the margins.

In exploring this system in Egypt, Aswany critiques stereotypical explanations of African societies in terms of individuals’ cultural, behavioral, and socio-psychological expressions. The arrogance, authoritarianism, and brazen aggression of the postcolonial elite is shown to derive not from “ignorance” of modern styles of urbane entrepreneurship or governance, but from its having perfectly understood an environment of neocolonial accumulation — the primitive accumulation of bodies and of power. As Frantz Fanon explained, the postcolonial elite is an impoverished elite. Lacking all economic autonomy and political independence, it turns to existing political structures — the apparatuses of nationalist organizations, and later, the postcolonial state — to amass power and wealth. Unlike conventional bourgeoisies in the North, the dependent postcolonial elite acts brutally to seize political and economic power. In some ways, Aswany amplifies Fanon’s analysis: the ruthlessness of many socially dominant characters in the Egyptian writer’s novel shows that a precariously-positioned elite consolidates power through overtly exercising force and through obvious corruption.

Aswany’s insight into instrumentalized state systems coheres with his attention to the role universities play in the new circuits of postcolonial economic empowerment. African scholars such as Paul Zeleza, Mahmood Mamdani, and Charmaine Pereira show how African universities become sites for neo-imperial and neoliberal policy research and teaching. The shift towards academic work servicing neo-liberal developmentalism, “nation-building,” and government or ruling party interests progressively whittles away the role of universities as critical sites of research and teaching.

Yet few commentators seem to have grappled with just how pivotal the university has become to the reproduction of an elite — and how connected the state and the university have become to the elites’ struggle for power. The depth and perniciousness of this particular confluence is in part what the current student protest in South Africa is about. It’s not just that universities have become zones of neo-liberal marketization, churning out skilled students for the market economy, or creating knowledge for servicing this economy; they have also become key sites for elite formation and consolidation, allowing a small minority (including university managers, members of governance structures such as councils, consultants and the like) to gain access to economic and political power — and through their affiliation with government, also gain access to material wealth.

The knowledge economy in African countries has therefore been servicing global capitalism in vital and unprecedented ways. Aswany, writing before the wave of social media activism in his own and other countries, nevertheless anticipates the centrality of knowledge, knowledge dominance, and the suppression of certain knowledges in allowing particular groups to maintain and reproduce their power. 

What propels “the students”?

Since the mid-1990s, South African students, irrespective of their race, class, or gender, have been positioned by the status quo as the potential beneficiaries of the new order. The implicit argument seems to be that, as long as they work hard enough, they too can take up positions of privilege and authority in the new postcolonial state. This is the myth that Taha, Aswany’s character, temporarily accepts, but like many students in South Africa today, he ends up rejecting it angrily.  

Yet Aswany’s portrayal of Taha is not only a class analysis of students as disaffected members of a potential middle-class that will never join the ranks of the super-affluent elite. It is also powerfully alert to gender. As the son of a doorman, Taha works desperately to achieve his childhood dream of becoming an authoritative man; shifting from his ascribed position within a subordinated Cairene masculinity to assuming a powerful one within the country’s hegemonic masculinity. Rejected by the police academy because of his social background, he becomes a student at Cairo University, where rigid class prejudices once again confirm his social marginality. He eventually joins an Islamist political movement after being mentored by a militant leader in the Gamaa Islamiya. After he is arrested in a student protest, he is tortured and raped by policemen. Taha’s corporeal experience of having been penetrated sexually against his will, his embodied experience of losing his (already subordinate) masculinity and “becoming a woman” are therefore also key to understanding his zealous embrace of militant action once he joins the Gamaa Islamiya camp. It is through this route that he believes he can recover and, most importantly, publicly demonstrate a gender performance of militarized and ascendant masculinity.

Aswany’s student character’s journey consequently reveals a particular nuance about gendered student politics, which can marginalize subordinate men as well as women and queers. It is a movement that, as Cynthia Enloe puts it in her analysis of nationalism, has “sprung from masculinized memory, masculinized humiliation, masculinized hope” (Enloe 1990, 44). Even when some (feminists, queers, many women) who participate in such movements envision more inclusive ideas about social justice, the movements may often have at their core profoundly gendered understandings of injustice, oppression, and the restoration of human dignity. It is an encouraging index of the radical imaginativeness of the FMF movement that feminist and lesbian voices have insistently been threaded into the masculinist efforts to definitively name the movement. Women student leaders at the University of the Witwatersrand, for example, have affirmed women leaders’ centrality, while at UCT, frequent talk about intersectionality and the #Patriarchy Must Fall Movement, involving progressive queer staff and students, directly confronts intersecting oppressions and multiple forms of identity politics.

New Registers of Protest

One of the cyberpessimist conclusions about the information age is that the global South will inevitably be politically and culturally disadvantaged because of the digital divide. This view is discredited by the rise of powerful movements involving social media mobilization in Egypt, Kenya, and more recently, South Africa. These student and student-related protests are evidence of rural, urban, and peri-urban Africans adapting whatever new media resources they have to contest the neo-colonial state, authoritarian university bureaucracies, and neo-imperialism. Many have also challenged the arsenal of neo-liberal myths that — at a global level — work to persuade us all that economic growth, formal rights, and nation-building driven by the global North means “freedom.”

In seeking to cut through this myth-making, the language of protest has been eclectic, often fierce and — from the perspective of standard left-wing logic — “unintelligible.” It is hard to decode the new languages of protest, not only because it is often hybridized “IT” language, but also because it seems to be struggling to displace so much of what has come before. And what has come before includes the old left that — throughout Africa — has frequently instrumentalized students, peasants, and workers within political agendas that replicate much of the old order. In Awany’s novel, for example, Taha is manipulated by Gamaa Islamiya leaders in very similar ways to how young South Africans are being positioned by various left-leaning agendas — and are also angrily responding to this positioning.

The responses of these young South Africans, a generation known as “born frees,” testifies to their having had enough of the duplicitous rhetoric used not only by the current ruling party, the ANC, but also by the “workerist” Freedom Front and various groups within the new left. In her own battle to create new registers for expressing this, the author of Memoirs of a Born Free (2014) Malaika Wa Azania, writing before the rise of the FMF movement insists:

I realized that student organizations, as factories where future leaders are manufactured should lead the revolution of the annihilation of ill-discipline. It begins with fighting against SRC corruption and misappropriation of resources. It begins with a culture of electing leaders on the basis of popularity as opposed to electing them on the basis of capacity to deliver (Azania 2014, 147-148).

Describing her restless journey to find ethical platforms that resist ANC corruption, as well as the duplicity of leaders using populist rhetoric for their own ends, the author dwells on her use of Facebook, Twitter, visual representation, and the printed word. Her sense of the struggle for freedom is therefore strongly linked to her sense of a struggle with and through language.

At the end of The Yacoubian Building, Aswany’s romantic vision, exaggerated in the film version of the story, seems oddly unsatisfying in view of the acuteness of his insight into power. Yet his utopian vision seems to make sense if we acknowledge the author’s interest in uncovering new registers of knowledge about power, freedom, and justice. Since the anti-colonial struggles and anti-racist struggles, African universities have always been sites for an intellectual activism that reverberates both nationally and continentally. And even though student activism and leadership in national or popular movements has been global, there may be something unique about the prominence of African student leaders (Leopold Senghor, Mia Coutou, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Njabulo Ndebele) whose poetic and imaginative vision have inspired utopian ideas about postcolonial futures. Current student politics, whether in South African Kenya or Egypt, seems to share little with the obviously poetic and imaginative calls that drove anti-colonial visions of being African in the mid-1900s. Yet maybe they do. And it might even be in the seemingly prosaic and utilitarian platforms offered by social media that these utopian dreams are being crafted.

In expressing their outrage and betrayal, many South African students have used a range of languages. These include Facebook posts, tweets, and the fusing of new and traditional[2] media to challenge both the mainstream media’s demonizing of their cause, as well as university management’s control monopolies over electronic communication. The possibilities held out for radical transformation could rest not only on how these communicative resources are used for radical ends. It might also derive from how knowledges are generating rich but also extremely complex registers for naming and conceptualizing postcolonial freedoms. It is tempting to see this battle for new truths within knowledge euphorically and optimistically. Yet like all struggles for the new, it is fraught, painful and difficult — vivid evidence of Antonio Gramsci’s reminder that when the old is dying and the new cannot be born, “a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” But there can surely be no doubt that the new struggles are reflecting what the South African writer, Bessie Head, stated several years ago: “We may be at a turning point and need new names for human dignity, new codes of honour all nations can abide by.”


Al Aswany, A. 2006. (trans) The Yacoubian Building. Harper.

Callinicos, A. 2006. Universities in a Neoliberal World. London: Bookmarks.

Eagleton, T. 2010. “The Death of Universities.” The Guardian.

Enloe, C. 1990. Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Head, B. Letter to Michael Scammell. Bessie Head Papers. Khama III Museum, Serowe.

Mamdani, M. 2011. “The importance of research in a university.” Pambazuka News, Issue 526, April 21.

Thornton, M. 2009. “Universities Upside Down: The Impact of the New Knowledge Economy.” Australia National University College of Law Research Paper. No. 10-13.

Wa Azani, M. 2014. Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation. Auckland Park: Jacana.

Zeleza, P. 2003. Rethinking Africa’s Globalization: The Intellectual Challenges. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.


[1] This particular three-tiered class structure is significantly different from class configurations in the global North, where the disparity in income and lifestyle between the middle class and the elite is far less extreme than is the case in many countries in the global South, including South Africa.

[2] Traditional platforms of mobilization through print have remained important, such as posters and slogans on T-shirts.


Desiree Lewis has taught literary studies at the Universities of the Witwatersrand, Cape Town, Kwazulu Natal, and the Western Cape. She is the author of Living on a Horizon: Bessie Head and the Politics of Imagining, among other publications.

LARB Contributor

Desiree Lewis has taught literary studies at the Universities of the Witwatersrand, Cape Town, Kwazulu Natal, and the Western Cape. She has also lectured on Women’s and Gender Studies at universities in and beyond South Africa. She has a research interest in literary and popular culture, global feminist knowledge and politics, the politics of visuality and representation, and postcolonial writing and culture. She has been a Fulbright scholar-in-residence, a research associate at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala Sweden, and a visiting researcher and lecturer in the United States and Sweden. She currently serves on the editorial boards of four academic journals and is a Council Member of the National English Literary Museum.

Desiree Lewis has also been active in developing feminist intellectual activist networks throughout Africa; within South Africa, and in the Western Cape. She undertook research and editorial work on feminist networking and knowledge production at the African Gender Institute between 2001 and 2003; taught course on feminist theory and epistemology for postgraduate students in the Zimbabwean-based network, SAPES between 1993 and 2005; has participated in webinars, workshops, and seminars on gender, race and sexualities in South Africa, produces accessible writings on and mentors new writers’ work on feminism and gender. She is the author of Living on a Horizon: Bessie Head and the Politics of Imagining, among other publications.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!