End of the rainbow

In October 2015, thousands of South African students took to the streets, bringing their country to a virtual standstill. Mobilising under two interlinked movements – #RhodesMustFall (RMF) and #FeesMustFall (FMF) – the students organised a campaign that shut down the nation’s twenty-six universities. They were protesting an 11.5 per cent tuition hike that was to be introduced for the 2016 academic year. Just weeks after their protests began, the students had won: President Jacob Zuma announced there would be no fee increase. He also issued a hurried statement pledging to address their broader concerns about increasing access to higher education.

A photo taken during the October protests best embodies the spirit of the two movements. In it a young woman stands holding a sign. It reads: ‘Our parents were SOLD dreams in 1994 … We are just here for the REFUND!!!‘

The students – collectively known as Fallists – have continued to organise, and maintain a creative and disruptive presence on a number of university campuses. They have been most active at the formerly white institutions of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, Rhodes University (or, as the Fallists say, ‘the institution currently known as Rhodes’) in Grahamstown and the University of Cape Town.

Their aim: to decolonise the university. ‘Decolonisation’ has served as shorthand for a range of initiatives, including efforts to increase the number of Black academic faculty members, address the Eurocentirsm of the curriculum and end both overt and institutional racism in dormitories and various departments. It has also been a pointed rejection of the ‘Rainbow Nation’, a concept central to the national identity of post-apartheid South Africa. Fallism has little patience for mealy-mouthed liberals, and it certainly has no time for non-racialism (that is, ‘equality’ on paper only).

But the student movement itself is not beyond reproach. While it seeks to trouble the orthodoxy of forgiveness and places racism at its centre, it also works in ways that can embed existing unequal power relations rather than upend them. Fallism purports to be opposed to oppression, but in recent months has faced increasing criticism over sexism, homophobia and transphobia. Indeed, sexism and rape culture have become the core focus of a number of Fallists this year in response to both stifling campus environments and the movement’s own dynamics. There are also disturbing signs of nationalism and a desire to privilege race analyses over class consciousness.

This is no surprise. The student movement is a reflection of the society from which it emerges. South Africa is a complex and dynamic place, and in many ways is still struggling to define itself twenty-two years after the end of apartheid. The country continues to grapple with the complex legacy of Nelson Mandela, the man who some say both built and betrayed South Africa.


Mandela died at the end of 2013, surrounded by those he loved in a beautiful mansion in the affluent northern suburbs of Johannesburg. It was the perfect death; the nation was ready and, it seemed, so was he. In a country where life expect-ancy is only fifty-six years, Mandela lived to ninety-five.

A few days after the official announcement of his death, I went to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and sat with others in a tent in the pouring rain. It was an uncharacteristically cold week. December is normally hot, but for the week we mourned Madiba, summer seemed to have been suspended. I left my children at home because I wanted to be free to wander, to look at his letters and the photos of him and Winnie in their younger years. I wanted to listen to his voice, rich with rolling r’s and clipped n’s. I wanted to be able to talk about him and reminisce without small voices begging to go to the toilet. I didn’t want to have to search for words to explain apartheid and white supremacy.

Many such gatherings – ordinary people coming together to mourn and reminisce – were held across the country. There was also a series of government-organised public memorials. The country had been on alert for well over a year, closely monitoring Madiba’s deteriorating health. The government events drew thousands of people. They were star-studded affairs, put on with an eye to the upcoming national elections; for the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s governing party, it was an opportunity to showcase the achievements of its best-loved icon.

Journalist Rebecca Davis described the Cape Town memorial as ‘a moving moment of unified catharsis’. Sitting in a multiracial crowd in the former Cape Colony, Davis said the event felt like ‘Madiba Magic given flesh and form once again’.

In Port Elizabeth, the festivities went awry. There were dramas with transport and food, and not everyone was able to mourn at the official venue. A few weeks later, local newspapers reported that some of the money intended for transport and catering had found its way into the personal bank account of the province’s premier. Investigations are ongoing.

In Johannesburg – South Africa’s political and economic heart – the 94,000-strong crowd booed President Zuma when he stepped forward to eulogise his fallen comrade. In that humiliating moment, it would have been difficult for Zuma not to think about the last time he had been seen in public with Mandela. The old man had stood by Zuma’s side at an election rally in 2009. He was too frail to speak, but his presence was all the endorsement Zuma needed.

Zuma has long been a divisive figure. Although he spent a decade imprisoned on Robben Island and played an important role in brokering peace in the war-torn Natal region in the early 1990s, he has also been embroiled in a series of personal and financial scandals. In 1999, he was sacked as deputy president of the country for allegations relating to his role in a large arms deal. In 2005, he was acquitted of rape charges.

He and his allies mounted a successful comeback campaign: he was elected president of the ANC, then president of the country in 2009. He won a second term of office in 2014 amid much controversy. The Nkandla scandal, in which the state paid an estimated $20 million to renovate Zuma’s rural homestead, has dogged him since his first year in office largely because of an investigation carried out by the country’s Public Protector Thuli Madonsela.

The booing of the crowd was probably linked to the Nkandla debacle. Africans are normally dignified and respectful in moments of death, but the Johannesburg crowd did not hold back its contempt. Writing in the Mail & Guardian, veteran South African journalist Mark Gevisser suggested that Zuma had perhaps stumbled into a moment of collective grief in which South Africans ‘were taking out their anger on [him] for not being Mandela’. This was a generous reading. Gevisser’s second postulation may have been closer to the mark. Perhaps, he argued, ‘the earthiness of the crowd’s behaviour deflated the notion that we are a special people with a special destiny: the rainbow children of a saintly father. We are not. We are a troubled and fractious country in a tough neighbourhood. We have problems. Who wouldn’t, given such a history? And we have leaders who don’t do us justice.’


In South Africa today, the sense that the ruling party’s leaders have not done justice to the people is pervasive. This idea was articulated time and again during the October protests: as students spoke out against the fee increase, they told painful stories. Some talked of being forced to sleep on the streets because of insuffic-ient funding. Some admitted to eating only every other day. Young women talked about having sex with older men to support their studies. The public responded by shaking their heads and proclaiming, on social media and in newspapers, that the ruling party was failing its young.

The idea that the social-democratic ANC has betrayed its people is a recurring theme across the country’s vibrant and sometimes dangerous protest landscape. According to a University of Johannesburg study, between 2010 and 2014 South Africa saw a 66 per cent increase in street protests related to the lack of municipal services like water, sanitation and electricity. In Cape Town, for example, over 70 per cent of the toilets provided by the state in shanty areas were actually designed for use in emergency environments. Many ‘informal settlements’ are now decades old and the only homes most residents have ever known. Frustration is mounting in such communities across the country, with protesting residents repeatedly telling researchers that their anger is exacerbated by poor political leadership.

The general sentiment is that the ANC has failed on two fronts. Firstly, there is the widely held belief that the reconciliation process short-changed the black majority. The political transition focused on black forgiveness, but failed to extract white contrition. Whites never really apologised for the ways in which they collectively benef-ited from apartheid, nor were they held accountable. Secondly, and interrel-atedly, whites continue to enjoy the same privileges they always have, while the vast majority of black people continue to live in poverty.

In an interview early this year, Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of the newly established Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), suggested that the Mandela loved by the world was ‘a stage-managed Nelson Mandela who compromised the fundamental principles of the revolution’. A charismatic and controversial figure, Malema served as President of the African National Congress Youth League until 2012, when he was expelled for increasingly unruly behavior. Once a key Zuma supporter, he has become vocal about the corruption woes facing his one-time mentor (strange given Malema himself has faced similar allegations). Malema formed the EFF in July 2013 and the party contested elections the following year, winning an impressive 7 per cent (the ANC continue to hold two-thirds of the vote), and he’s young: at only thirty-five, Malema has a long career ahead.

Attempting, in his own way, to be diplomatic, Malema went on: ‘We normally don’t use those phrases like Mandela sold out – [then] we are being too harsh. He was too old, he was tired, so he had to give in on some of the things … so he left it to us.‘

It is hard to disagree. The compromises that were made – not just by Mandela, but by the entire ANC leadership – were significant. The cabinet that led South Africa after the first democratic elections in 1994 did not have a socialist orientation: Roelof F Botha, who had served as the Minister for Foreign Relations for the white minority government, was appointed as Minister of Minerals and Mining, while Derek Keys retained the finance portfolio in a measure hailed by the international press as a move that would please the markets. Internally, it quelled the fears of whites who had worried that the ANC would nationalise key sectors of the economy and expropriate land from whites.

The ANC was, of course, under intense pressure to adopt a free market approach. Its embrace of neoliberal policies including tax concessions for conglomerates, the privatisation of key parastatals, exchange control liberalisation, dropping protections for certain industries like textiles and an increase in temporary, casual, contract and part-time employment has cost poor South Africans dearly. Almost half of the country’s population is under the age of twenty-five, with unemployment for that group at almost 50 per cent. This same cohort of black youth is less skilled than their parents. Indeed, they are less skilled than every other race and age group in the country.


You can blame Mandela for being too soft on whites. You can say that Mandela was a magical negro, the black exception that proved the rule about the rest of us. You can say this and I won’t argue. But it is impossible to lay Marikana at Mandela’s feet.

The Marikana massacre, in which the South African police killed thirty-four striking workers at a platinum mine, had everything to do with poor leadership and the betrayal of workers – but had nothing to do with Nelson Mandela. The killings, and the callousness and cruelty of the state in the weeks, months and now years that followed made it clear that the South African miracle had been short-lived.

The massacre marked the most lethal use of force by South African security forces against civilians since the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. An inquest later heard that most of the men killed were shot in the back. The police officers went unpunished. To this day, the government refuses to accept official culpability.

Long-time social activist and people’s philosopher Trevor Ngwane has argued that ‘a spectre was born’ after Marikana that will ‘haunt the South African ruling class’. He calls it the ‘Spirit of Marikana’:

[a] spirit of defiance, of do-or-die, of moving forward against all odds. This is what the workers on that mountain displayed. This is what millions of workers saw. The workers were ready to lose their lives rather than continue being exploited by the mine owners. Certainly they were prepared to lose their jobs in the process. Later a worker who was shot nine times and survived, Mzoxolo Magidiwana, said that they were fighting to make sure that their children did not suffer as they did.

There is an energy propelling South Africa forward. Since 2012, a series of land invasions and so-called ‘illegal’ housing occupations have occurred. In a number of instances, the new residents have named their communities Marikana, as if the ghosts of the dead miners are emboldening the most dispossessed members of South African society. The courage of the miners who went on strike for five bitter months continues to animate the community and political landscape in South Africa. Change in South Africa is coming, and it flies on the wings of spirits.

Ngwane says that the student and worker rebellions in the universities were also the work of the Spirit of Marikana, and I believe him. It is fitting that South Africa’s future be guided by the ghosts of dead miners. They are in the company of millions more, their souls stretching back to the days of Cecil John Rhodes himself.


It is unclear what Mandela would have thought about present-day student activism, and, to be honest, most Fallists are unlikely to care. They are caught up in their own momentum, in a time and place that needs new articulations, a different grammar than the lexicon of Mandela and his children.

Fallist activism may borrow from the iconography of the 1976 student uprisings in Soweto, but it has no time for the non-racialism to which Mandela dedicated his life, nor does it have the patience for respectability politics. If whites are offen-ded by black rage, so be it.

Heavily influenced by the ideas of Franz Fanon and Steve Biko (a student leader who was tortured and killed by apartheid police in 1977), this movement is ‘clap-back’ against the orthodoxy of forgiveness. It is here to demythologise the rainbow nation, to slay all the sacred cows.

The story of Fallism officially begins on 9 March 2015, when a group of protesters, led by UCT student Chumani Maxwele (an increasingly controversial figure), dragged a bucket of human excrement to the spot where a statute of Rhodes had stood since 1934 and then threw it onto the statue. In many of South Africa’s townships (where non-white residents were forced to live under apartheid), residents are forced to use filthy communal toilets. Maxwele did not have to go far to find shit to throw.

After multiple actions, including a student occupation of UCT’s administrative building, the university’s senate voted to take the statue down. Exactly one month after the protests had started, a crane lifted Rhodes off his plinth. The statue was then cut up and carted off in pieces.

Students across the country followed the lead of RMF, which by now had a manifesto and had developed a visible social media presence. Its stated objective was to challenge institutionalised racism. On the face of it, this was an uncontroversial mission. Yet RMF’s tactics were deeply confronting; the movement used symbolism to excellent effect. As Maxwele said, ‘This poo that we are throwing on the statue represents the shame of black people. By throwing it on the statue, we are throwing our shame to whites’ affluence.’

RMF activism moved from UCT to Rhodes, and then to Wits. Soon it was at Stellenbosch University, the University of Free State and other institutions. Everywhere Fallists emerged, they butted heads with powerful alumni, with men and women who had an emotional investment in South Africa’s formerly white universities. They soon saw that they had touched a nerve.

As UCT Black Academic Caucus member Shose Kessi wrote, South African universities ‘historically prioritised thinking and practices that legitimised apartheid and colonisation. In other words, universities focused on theories, methods and projects that served the interests of the dominant and the privileged.’ She went on to point out that there are departments at UCT that do not have a single black South African academic.

Universities are the last great chunk of public infrastructure that white South Africans – even the very elite – continue to benefit from in large numbers. Since the end of apartheid, white South Africans have largely abandoned the primary and secondary education system; so while schools are technically integrated, there are very few white students attending them. Universities on the other hand continue to attract white and elite students. South African universities are well-resourced and highly connected to the private sector. Their alumni are the educated elite of the country – and mainly white, as under apartheid elite universities excluded all but a small number of black students. This legacy – the sentimental and practical ties whites have to their universities – explains why the Fallist movement has made such an impact.

In September, when the government announced the fee increase, students were ready to take on a national battle. RMF had begun as a movement against institutionalised racism at universities, but soon expanded its focus: the fee increase provided Fallists with a clear indication of the failure of the state to address the needs of black youth. The bread-and-butter issues of tuition affected a significantly larger number of students than those who were directly involved in RMF.

The proposed 11.5 per cent hike in fees would obviously impact on the poor – that is, there would be fewer bursaries to go around – but it would also hit middle-class families that do not qualify for the national bursary scheme. In fact, the increase would hit the fragile black middle class especially hard. The ANC has invested heavily in trickle-down economics by seeking to build a black middle class, and in the last decade the number of black middle-class households has indeed mushroomed. Yet the definition of middle class is overly broad. The black middle class is fragile: it has a low savings base and large numbers of dependents – many of them in rural areas.

These rising racial discontent and escalating economic pressures on the poor and newly middle-class created a perfect storm for the October protests. As the movement began to take shape, it became clear that the students would not follow the non-racial script of the Rainbow Nation. RMF was a black-led, black-owned movement that subscribed to the black consciousness espoused by Steve Biko. RMF activists were clear that they would not allow well-intentioned white students to coopt their movement, even as it morphed into FMF.

Though FMF was multiracial in composition, white students were often asked to leave discussions about strategy and tactics. They were told where their place was – and it wasn’t on the front lines. They were in movement spaces as allies and their participation was contingent on respecting this.

This rigorous practice of principled ally-ship informed the remarkable scenes that played out in Cape Town, when white students were asked to step forward and form a human shield between police and black protesters. The police were characteristically brutal and aggressive. One carryover of the apartheid era is heavy-handed crowd control. Police approach all crowds as though they are riots: rubber bullets, pepper spray and full riot gear are the norm. Because of the sheer numbers involved in the student protests, and the panic on the part of university administrators, the police came out in force. Campuses were on lockdown for weeks. The images were poignant, even for those of us who know how to guard ourselves against the idea of whites as saviours. Watching them reminded me of writer and academic Njabulo Ndebele’s reflections on international whiteness:

Wherever the white body is violated in the world, severe retribution follows somehow for the perpetrators if they are non-white, regardless of the social status of the white body. The white body is inviolable, and that inviolability is in direct proportion to the global vulnerability of the black body … [I]f South African whiteness is a beneficiary of the protectiveness assured by international whiteness, it has an opportunity to write a new chapter in world history. It will have to come out from under the umbrella and repudiate it. Putting itself at risk, it will have to declare that it is home now, sharing in the vulnerability of other compatriot bodies. South African whiteness will declare that its dignity is inseparable from the dignity of black bodies.

In spite of having been born in a ‘free’ South Africa, the Fallists knew the police would be armed with tear gas and rubber bullets. They knew that just as the police had been willing to shoot in Marikana, they would be prepared to shoot here. They knew, too, that the police would not shoot at white children. They were right. When the white students stepped forward, the police knew what to do. They put down their guns. The protesters were safe.

The white students resisted being called heroes, and indeed they were not. They understood that their white lives had never been in danger. The media, however, did what it likes to do: it painted them as heroes. After all these years, despite all the evidence that ours is a divided and unequal society, South Africa loves a good rainbow story.

Since the beginning of 2016, the student protests have taken a different turn. While hugely successful in shining a spotlight on the racial inequality that prevails on South African campuses, their focus has shifted to the sexism and rape culture that define both the student movement and wider society. A protest at Rhodes University in April highlighted the difficulty and importance of focusing on multiple axes of power at once. A group of female and gender-nonconforming students released a list of men accused of rape. Referred to as a ‘reference list’, they were making it public, they said, because they do not have faith in the university’s commitment to see the cases through. The foot-dragging, they argue, deters women from accessing justice. Their ire was also turned toward male peers and a new generation of (largely) African university administrators. They protested bare-breasted, invoking the historical ways in which African women cursed colonial administrators.

Somehow, they have managed a crucial pivot. The ANC continues to dominate the political terrain because it commands large numbers, but it is a decaying movement, incapable of introspection. Faced with a president who cannot accept his mistakes, the party has learned to close ranks and defend its position at all costs. In the process it has lost the moral high ground. The student movement, on the other hand, has demonstrated a remarkable ability to look at itself honestly and critically. Driven by a new sense of purpose, and emerging from the mythology of the post-apartheid miracle, these students have cut their teeth on making Rhodes fall. Perhaps it is the spirit of Marikana that is at their backs, nudging, pushing, ensuring that the Fallists continue to rise.


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Sisonke Msimang

Sisonke Msimang is a writer and activist who works on race, gender, democracy and politics. She divides her time between Perth and Johannesburg.

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