South Africa: white fear, black anger and student protests

Student protests across South Africa have heralded a new generation of political activists. ‘Born free’ into democracy, they are frustrated at the slow pace of transformation in higher education.

Che Ramsden
2 November 2015

As October 2015 drew to a close, international media attention focused once again on South Africa as Oscar Pistorius was released from jail after serving 10 months of his five-year sentence for killing Reeva Steenkamp. Fewer column inches were dedicated to the student protests which reclaimed movement politics for the ‘born free’ generation, those born after the fall of the apartheid government in 1994.


"Our voices will not be silenced", mass meeting on UCT campus, 22 October 2015.

On the day of Pistorius’ release to serve the remainder of his sentence under house arrest in his luxury home, one student protester carried a placard that read, ‘Oscar is walking free but students are being arrested by fees!!’

The protests speak – or, more appropriately, shout – to a lack of transformation in South Africa in twenty one years of democracy, something which was also revealed through Oscar Pistorius’ case.

As I described in my first article in oD 50.50’s Oscar Pistorius trilogy, Pistorius’ defence (which Judge Masipa believed) is that he killed Reeva Steenkamp believing both of their lives to be at risk from an intruder. He claims that he thought he was protecting her from an imagined, violent stranger, implicitly a black man. Margie Orford locates this argument as a manifestation of swart gevaar – literally ‘black threat’, shorthand for a security risk posed to white people by the majority black population. ‘Under apartheid,’ writes Orford, ‘swart gevaar was used to excuse any and all kinds of violence.’ In Pistorius’ case, it was used to explain an excessive four gunshots at close range by a white man protecting his home and girlfriend.

Swart gevaar, white fear

Although it means ‘black threat’, swart gevaar is actually about whiteness: it casts the Black ‘other’ as an unknown but violent quantity, and centres white feelings of fear in this narrative. White fear is a feature of post-apartheid South Africa as much as it was a pillar of apartheid, one of the threads of history which ties the present to the past. It manifests blatantly, as in the Pistorius defence argument, as well as subtly, weaving its way into concepts such as ‘meritocracy’ and dessert which ignore the intersections between race, gender and the chances of academic or economic advantage.

In an education setting, we find whiteness centred not only in what is studied  (the curriculum) but how it is studied – for instance, the language of instruction (despite South Africa’s 11 official languages, English and Afrikaans dominate education), the ethnic demographics of the staff who teach it, and the fees which outprice poor students and would-be students, who are predominantly Black.

In this way Black lives, languages and experiences are deemed unworthy – of being voiced, studied or included. Whiteness remains dominant, so any challenge is a threat: this is swart gevaar.

When white privilege is challenged, it triggers a fear which Robin DiAngelo coins white fragility, an ‘inability to handle the stress of conversations about race and racism…that prevents anybody from moving forward.’ DiAngelo describes a typical reaction, ‘tone policing’, whereby ‘white people…[dictate] criteria about how people of colour give us feedback’ – further centring white experiences at the expense of Black ones.

On this theme, a meme is circulating South African social media in which a young, smiling white woman repeats those clichés which indicate white fragility: ‘Apartheid / is in the past’; ‘Why are you making this / about race?’; ‘White privilege? / But I’m not rich’; ‘Racism is over / just work harder’. These sentiments may seem mild compared to assertions of Afrikaaner privilege or more violent reactions (including the man who allegedly pulled a gun on protesting students in Grahamstown), but they subtly uphold the systematic racism which devalues Black lives.

The forgiveness legacy

In part, white feelings – such as fear – continue to be centred in South Africa due to the emphasis placed on assuaging these feelings during the transition from apartheid.

When the foundations of the New South Africa were laid, the dreams and aspirations for a post-apartheid South Africa were cemented with the notion of forgiveness. Particularly through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Black South Africans were encouraged to forgive the white sins of the past and move forward as part of a ‘rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.’ Testimonies were heard, apologies made and forgiveness proffered. Madiba even shared his Nobel Peace Prize with apartheid president F.W. de Klerk.

This was part of a process which Archbishop Desmond Tutu has described in his Forgiveness Project as being as, if not more, important to the person doing the forgiving as to those forgiven. ‘Remaining in that state [of anger and hatred] locks you in a state of victimhood,’ he explains, and forgiveness acts as the catalyst to ‘move on’. The personal, possibly spiritual benefits of forgiveness seem to be only one aspect of transformation; they do not balance the realities of poverty, or a painstakingly slow pace of material change.

However, ‘forgiveness’ seemed to become an end in itself, and this continued to erase the pain and anger experienced by Black people under apartheid.

Nelson Mandela became something of a poster boy for this brand of forgiveness: if he could spend 27 years imprisoned and extend dinner invitations to his captors, then other South Africans should follow his example and forgive their oppressors. The fact that Mandela’s approach was actually more nuanced has been whitewashed. Mandela was instead, wrongly, adopted as a Hollywood symbol of non-violence and transformation. This portrayal was cemented by blockbuster films like Invictus, the plot of which actually revolved around a white man, Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, and his journey into the New South Africa, for whom the Mandela character serves as a godlike moral compass.

Black anger

Forgiveness has not effected transformation; as a narrative, it requires the same suspension of disbelief as to imagine that Morgan Freeman is the real Nelson Mandela. It has served to centre white experiences, de-emphasising a history of Black pain in favour of assuaging white fear. The real benefactors of forgiveness are those who were aided by apartheid; not only do they continue to benefit from history, but thanks to the forgiveness narrative they can do so guilt-free. Meanwhile, although Black pain, and anger, are as normal a part of South Africa as white fear, there has not been the same attention given to assuaging it.

During the recent protests, a number of placards riffed on the same theme: ‘My parents were sold a dream in 1994. I’m here for a refund!’


1994 ANC election poster. Photo:ANC

This year South African student movements voiced this pain, and organised to challenge the lack of transformation in universities. Rhodes Must Fall at the University of Cape Town (UCT) agitated for the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from campus and pushed for decolonisation of the institution. Open Stellenbosch released a documentary, Luister, about the racism experienced by students of colour at Stellenbosch University. The #RhodesSoWhite documentary likewise explores themes of structural oppression at the university currently known as Rhodes. Activity culminated in a National Shutdown at the end of October against unaffordable tuition fees, co-ordinated by students at universities across South Africa under the umbrella #FeesMustFall.

By rejecting the forgiveness narrative, student movements have demanded a more concrete alternative. This includes accessible, free education, a staffing body which is reflective of South Africa, and a curriculum which engages with society rather than Eurocentric ideals – as Thato Pule, UCT student and member of Rhodes Must Fall puts it, “does UCT respond to the needs of Khayelitsha?”

So far in 2015, UCT’s statue of Rhodes has indeed fallenfees will not increase next year at any university; formal conversations about decolonisation are taking place; the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) and UCT are committed to ‘insourcing’ workers, thus providing security for all university staff.  The student movements have already ensured more rapid transformation of the university curriculum. For example, at the University of Johannesburg, there will be compulsory courses on African philosophy and anticolonialism. The Decolonise UCT Law movement also secured a change to UCT’s jurisprudence course, to include critical race and feminist theories.

Not only is the movement effective, in itself it is inspiring. For a start, is led by women. Shaeera Kalla andNompendulo Mkhatshwa, the respective outgoing and incoming presidents of the Wits Student Representative Council, ignited #FeesMustFall.

Their concerns are intersectional, extending beyond fees to broader issues of access, including patriarchy,capitalism, and rights for the most vulnerable members of the university community, outsourced workers. #EndOutsourcing was the renewed rallying cry of student protesters once a 0% fees increase was secured for 2016. Students now stand in solidarity with workers movements as they continue to demand better from their higher education institutions and the government.

The student-led mass movement of 2015 has heralded the political awakening of a generation which has realised they were not all ‘born free’, and a reawakening for the country which was moved by student activism in 1976 and 1984-5.

Before the government decided to listen to student demands, in scenes that should have ended with apartheid, students were met with teargas, rubber bullets and arrests. Twenty three protesters from UCT who peacefully marched on Parliament had their bail set at R1m – the same set for Oscar Pistorius when he was charged with murder.

Apartheid-era tactics were employed, including state-sanctioned police brutality and threatening activists with charges of high treason. Furthermore, the value of Black lives to the police was obvious when only a white human shield would prevent police violence.

The government’s initial response betrays their fear. This reveals that they have joined the ranks of those who benefited from apartheid: structurally privileged, but precarious. Perceiving a threat to their power, and overreacting. They might remember Mandela’s own advice to South Africans: “If the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to the ANC, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government.”

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