New approach to protests from younger generation

2015-04-12 15:00

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Some among an older generation of activists have slammed the student protests as poorly thought out and lacking a genuine cause.

But the current protests are radically different to the way protests were organised in the past and have a lot to do with a global shift in how youth expresses itself politically.

The Occupy Wall Street campaign, Arab Spring and peaceful protest by Hong Kong students were all characterised by horizontal structures and a casual approach to leadership that meant there was no “face” of the movement.

In South Africa, the consensus around compromise that characterised the Codesa generation has fallen out of favour and a more radical approach has been simmering among the youth.

“The younger generation is addressing the limits of the Codesa generation,” said Rhodes University history department lecturer Nomalanga Mkhize.

“They had to come to a certain arrangement to stabilise and bring peace, but that arrangement had its own weaknesses. This generation is saying: ‘We’re picking up where you left off.’”

Activist Sekoetlane Phamodi agrees. “We’ve been carrying the failed transformation project and it is an affront not only to our dignity but our psyche.”

What next? As the cynics point out, these movements are likely to sputter and die, as was the fate of the Occupy movements and the Arab Spring protests.

“I am under no illusion these students are going to be crushed, and it is likely that this thing is going to fizzle out,” said Phamodi.

Richard Pithouse, a lecturer in the politics department at Rhodes, was also concerned the protests in Grahamstown were being led by postgraduates who would probably leave soon.

But Mkhize said the expectation that these sorts of movements should develop into a big political structure was part of the problem, and political change was not that simple.

“Clements Kadalie formed one of the biggest unions in the country in the 1920s. I don’t think you could have had a United Democratic Front in the 1980s if you didn’t have an Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union in the 1920s.”

The current protests may not have completely changed the game, but they’ve marked an indelible shift.

“The quality of the intervention that has been made is so significant it has already shifted power relations and the terms of the debate,” said Pithouse.

“I don’t think we can completely go back to the way things were before.”

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