On Fees and Ballot Boxes: Youth Democratic Participation in South Africa

Youth Democratic Participation in South Africa
5 minutes approx.

It was my first year in university and I was filled to the brim with expectations.  This place was where I was supposed to meet people get out of the bubble that my private school education had put in me in. I was here, there and nowhere all at once. I had packed my bags and undergone the two-hour car ride to my new home, for eight months in the year.

I moved into student accommodation and I’ll never forget how the singing lit up the halls of the residence. I remember an off the shoulder comment by one of my new neighbours “I feel like I’m in an Umkhonto we Sizwe training camp” we laughed as we continued to recite the lyrics to one of our, now favourite, struggle songs “My mother was a kitchen girl, my father was a garden boy that’s why I am a communist”.

At the time, I didnt understood why these songs were necessary they were a disruption at best and man was I thoroughly annoyed when I had to learn them, could this be the land of freedom and debauchery I had signed up for, no definitely not, but I nonetheless endured.

Everything changed that September when hordes of students took the streets to regurgitate songs about Albertina Sisulu, Chris Hani and yes Solomon Mahlangu, I found myself somewhere in the crowds a face, an idea, a ‘black body’ that was falling into place, ready to do my part for our generational mission.

Photo: The Conversation

The student protests had occurred for the first time substantially, I use that word in the most measured way as there were many student protests before that of the ‘elite’ universities that did not gain adequate publicity, In October of 2015 when I was in my final year of high school. I remember passionately arguing with my teachers who were all white and middle class about how smearing of faeces on the Cecil john Rhodes statue was the perfect artistic statement to showcase black discontent with the continued inconsistencies with the rainbow nation fallacy.

In 2016 students had, for the second time, pushed the country out of its collective amnesia. We the ‘born frees’ the hope of the ‘new South Africa’ had shown just how skewed this idea of harmony had been. The lack of reform in not only education but the whole country structurally and systemically was addressed and criticised. During Fees must fall, students took the streets organising engaging in struggle demanding justice in one of the most unequal countries in the world. Our mission was to achieve free, decolonised education now.

The student movement in South Africa is not just another movement which passes by. It showcased very clearly on an international stage the failings of the South African state. 23 years after the attainment of civil rights, black students still sleep on the floors in libraries. The university is just a microcosm for the country at large. A tale of South Africa’s; one where students line up for subsidised meals just around the corner from a café that sells coffee for R32 a cup. They sit in the same classes.

It brought to the forefront conversations about exclusion, sustained trauma and lack of change. Structural inequality and poverty that had gripped the country so tightly that these struggles became invisible.

On reflection, I’ve learned a lot about democratic participation from the movement. One lesson in particular I wish to discuss, I found many of the students and student leaders still find themselves being avid supporters of the ruling party. This support was voiced, my first reaction to was to critique, anger, my throat ached to call them sell-outs “How can you support the party that sends police to shoot us?”.

Photo: PRI

Later I thought about reform and revolution and how maybe just maybe they were two sides of the same coin. I now find that this speaks to the idea of democratic participation itself. Democracy does not end at the ballot box it is important to consistent demand good governance and voice those demands. Who you vote for is not as important as your participation in civil society.

South Africa is riddled with problems, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, large-scale government mismanagement and corruption: but the answer to these problems is making the structures and attitudes that allow this society to continue reinforcing these problems less prevalent and that takes active citizenship. Voting a party into or out of power won’t erase these structural inconsistencies however being an active part of your country will. This cannot be penned down to protest alone but organisation is very important.

The second idea that I have considered deeply is intersectionality. Acknowledging problems is one thing, but acknowledging the effect it has on different sectors of the society is another. How do we stand to be better if we don’t understand how socio-political problems affect the most disenfranchised amongst us? We cannot organise for change if we don’t realise that sometimes we may be the problem.

A year later, with the possibility of fee protests once again knocking at our doors, we must ask ourselves about the viability and success of our movement in achieving what we set out to do and how to go about not recreating a cycle of revolution that never achieves its goal.

Photo: The Conversation

  • Adenike Fapohunda

    Adenike is from South Africa. She is a student of law, politics and philosophy who enjoys writing about the world as she experiences it.

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