How Apartheid Haunts a New Generation of South Africans

Universities are at the center of the hopes, and the limits, of the country's transition.

Protests against fee hikes at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg on October 21, 2015 (Marco Longari / AFP / Getty Images)

When 24-year-old Nyiko Lebogang Shikwambane left her home on the outskirts of Johannesburg to begin her law degree at the University of Witswatersrand in 2011, she brought with her the aspirations of a family of teachers and nurses—the only esteemed professions most black people living in South Africa could aspire to during the time of apartheid.

The University of Witwatersrand, known locally as “Wits,” is among South Africa’s one-time predominantly white educational institutions, which, during apartheid, sporadically butted heads with the government over their admissions policies. While a small number of black students were admitted to Wits and other similar, mostly English-medium, prestigious universities like the University of Cape Town (UCT) and Rhodes University, their student bodies remained largely white at the time. But within several years of the end of apartheid, the student bodies at many of these universities was majority black.

After beginning her studies at Wits, Shikwambane, who had attended a formerly all-white primary school, observed an unspoken hierarchy in her racially mixed, majority-black classes. “The white kids”—most of whom had gone to formerly all-white primary schools—“were the only ones answering questions in class. They were the only ones comfortable speaking in a class of 120 people,” she said. “The white kids would get the best grades. The white kids would circulate notes from other learners who were there the year before.” Most of the black students took notes using pen and paper, Shikwambane noticed. White students generally had laptops as well as iPads—Wits was the first place she had ever seen one.

Over two decades after the end of apartheid, a vast gulf remains between the experiences of South Africa’s white students and black students, like Shikwambane, who’d managed to gain entry to Wits despite the poor facilities and shoddy resources at the public schools in the rural areas and townships where many of them grew up. Formerly all-white high schools, by contrast, are well-resourced and supplemented by contributions from parents and alumni. They also send students to South Africa’s best universities, and provide opportunities for black students from poor backgrounds.

As a result, universities are now among the places that best represent the anger of the post-apartheid, or “born free” generation. This is a generation facing a grim irony: freer than their parents, but lacking the means and institutions to truly capitalize on that freedom. Many find themselves limited by what they’ve increasingly come to view as an incomplete social and political transformation, one that has simply entrenched the inequities of an age they’d been taught had long since passed.

This anger has resulted in regular protests, most recently at UCT and Wits. Students at both universities recently shut down their campuses after violent exchanges with police and private security. At UCT, the protest stemmed from student disciplinary hearings over a spate of alleged criminal acts earlier this year, including arson, assault, and vandalism. At Witswaterand, thousands of students blocked entrances to the university and occupied the main administrative building, in response to a government announcement that it would recommend a fee increase for some students.

South Africa’s universities—the very places where the vast economic and social disparities between whites and blacks enforced under apartheid could begin to close—are now among the places where a racist regime’s legacy remain starkly visible.

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In 1994, after decades of often-violent protest, international criticism, and boycotts, the white National Party-led South African government and Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress negotiated an end to a system that had institutionalized discrimination, granting different rights to black and white citizens, since 1948. The democratic elections that followed, the country’s first-ever, helped avoid civil war and brought a final end to a history of official racism. The ANC, a liberation-movement-turned-political party, also sought reconciliation for apartheid-era crimes through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The ANC’s leaders agreed that while political power through the ballot would be granted immediately, other changes, such as reform of land ownership, corporate shareholding, and affirmative action, would be phased in gradually through what would come to be known as “transformation.”

As democracy set in, black students had greater access to formerly white universities and schools. Those same institutions soon appointed their first black vice chancellors and rectors. But change came slowly, explains University of Pretoria lecturer Sithembile Mbete. The whole South African struggle had been framed in racial terms … as if addressing racial representation would fix everything,” she said.

It did not. Today, South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, a place where poverty breaks down largely along racial lines. A black person is four times more likely to be unemployed than a white person, and the average income for a white family is six times greater than for a black family. White people dominate senior management positions at businesses across the country. Last year, South Africa’s Business Day newspaper reported that the number of CEOs who are black, a category that also includes coloreds—members of the country’s unique mixed-race culture—and Indian South Africans, had actually declined since 2012 (Africans, coloreds, and Indians are often all referred to as “black,” particularly in the political arena. All were marginalized during apartheid). The cost of higher education has risen as well, thanks to inflation and reduced government subsidies.

The son of a single mother, Anzio Jacobs, a slim man with a large afro salted with strands of white and a wrist tattoo of the Hindu god Ganesha, grew up in Woodstock, then a working-class suburb of Cape Town. Because apartheid had confined black families to communities located far from white city centers, Jacobs and his black peers would travel, sometimes for hours, to get to school. White students, he found, came to school with chocolates in their lunches; black students brought “doorstopper-size” hunks of day-old bread. They were also expected to conform. “When I went to school, I had to be a particular kind of colored,” Jacobs said. “I had to exist on the periphery of whiteness. Speaking the right kind of English. Dressing the right way.”

Jacobs explained the pressure on black students who gain admission to formerly white universities to succeed. Even after receiving the “golden key,” black students are then confronted with the realities of social inequity and racism. “You’re expected to shut up and not to do anything about it because you’ve been given a gift—the gift of education. And you’re not supposed to look a gift horse in the mouth,” Jacobs said.

In 1996, Jacobs began attending a formerly white private school, where he learned that “racism is still a thing.” There, he and his fellow coloreds were bullied by their white peers; white administrators didn’t seem to care. Because he had to restart his degree after being forced to leave university when he couldn’t afford tuition, he is still only a second-year undergraduate at the age of 25. “I can sit here and write these exams and I know that next year I won’t have fees to pay for my study. And when I do get done with this system I’m going to go into an economy that doesn’t have enough space for me and I’m going to be overqualified. … I am the generation that gets to say ‘Fuck it all, I’m going to burn a building down.’”

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For the born frees, the root of the disparity is in the compromises between the ANC and apartheid authorities. Adam Habib, the vice chancellor of Wits, said that the hoped-for “transformation” never came to pass. The end of apartheid, he said, failed to establish a social democracy, instead establishing “a very weak neo-liberalism.” While the government opened institutions up to black South Africans, its pro-market agenda—which struggled to reform race-based economic and social injusticesimply replicated the brutal reality of apartheid’s structural racism.

Nelson Mandela raises his fist to the crowd in Port Elizabeth, April 1, 1990. (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)

These days, some critics on social media and callers on talk radio accuse Mandela, who died in 2013, of “selling out” to “white interests.” Others, like Julius Malema, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, an opposition political party backed largely by young South Africans that promotes socialism and African nationalism, question his legacy with more tact. In remarks last fall, Malema accused Mandela of “selling out the revolution” and the Freedom Charter, the 1955 statement of purpose for the ANC and its political allies that espoused ideas like non-racialism, equal rights, and economic nationalism. “Mandela is a human being like all of us. He's got his own shortcomings. His legacy and his contribution to the struggle will be a permanent subject for critique in South African politics. ... If you don't want to vote for me because I'm critiquing Mandela then you want to live a lie,” Malema said in December.

In Mandela’s place, many praise Pan-Africanist Congress leader Robert Sobukwe and Black Consciousness intellectual leader Steve Biko, both of whom regarded South Africa’s white minority with more skepticism than Mandela. Under a pseudonym, Biko wrote a series of articles in 1970 rejecting the idea that racial integration in South Africa necessitated assimilation. “Does this mean that I am against integration? If by integration you understand a breakthrough into white society by blacks, an assimilation and acceptance of blacks into an already established set of norms and code of behavior set up by and maintained by whites, then yes, I am against it.”

Last year, anger over tuition increases—including a double-digit hike at Wits—along with South Africa’s ongoing struggling economy, boiled over. Students at UCT threw excrement on a statue of British colonial leader Cecil Rhodes, demanding its removal and the “decolonialization” of the university, though what that meant beyond the removal of colonial symbols was not always clear. On October 23, 2015 the movement, calling itself #FeesMustFall on social media, marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the seat of the South African government. Thousands of demonstrators, some bearing placards with messages like: “My parents were sold dreams in 1994, I’m just here for the refund,” and others hurling rocks, faced off against police who responded with rubber bullets and tear gas. The protest ended when President Jacob Zuma promised a zero percent tuition increase.

After Zuma’s concession, most of the students returned to their universities. Others, taking the name “Fallists,” continued the protest against structural racism in South Africa and the still-staggering economic gap between white and black South Africans. But their movement fragmented as they disagreed over ideology and some turned to violence. In the past several months, computer laboratories, lecture halls, and buses, have been burned in connection to student protests. Some activists have faced disciplinary charges and court injunctions; the courts have threatened to bar some from the very educations they were fighting for.

Among those university administrators seeking court injunctions is Habib. As a young man, Habib himself was an anti-apartheid activist and self-described “far-left” radical. But like many activists of his generation, he now finds himself in the role of an authority figure in the new South Africa. “There is a legitimacy to the demand. [#FeesMustFall] was essentially a cry by black students that they felt substantially excluded from their institutions. How you resolve them needs to be debated,” Habib said. “You mustn’t confuse radical with violence.”

Student protests also come amidst a moment of high drama in South African politics. In local government elections in August, the ANC, which has governed the country since 1994, lost two cities in Gauteng,  the country’s economic hub. The economy has flirted with recession and struggled to improve the 26.2 percent unemployment rate. Local media frequently report on an alleged power struggle between Zuma and his rivals in the National Treasury.

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On August 29, black students from the prestigious Pretoria High School for Girls staged a protest outside their school, accusing administrators and teachers of racism and alleging that the school’s code of conduct did not allow them to wear their African hair naturally and that they were forbidden from speaking African languages. An image of one of the students, her arms crossed above her head as she dared authorities to arrest her and a magnificent afro crowning her head (singer, and sibling to Beyoncé, Solange Knowles tweeted her support to Patel), went viral.

Similar protests with similar complaints spread to other schools. Older alumni of these schools, called “Old Boys” and “Old Girls,” soon started Facebook pages to share their experiences of racism. “Now when you look at these high-school students who are protesting racism in their schools. That’s the generation that’s coming into universities, and anyone who thinks they’re going to be easier is in for a rude surprise. The ‘94 settlement isn’t enough anymore and the country has outgrown it,” Mbete said. “The conversation is being driven for the most part by people who grew up in freedom. … I don’t think what they’re doing is new at all, but it’s who’s doing it.”

For her part, Shikwambane said the protests by high school students is part of the “conversation” young people were having with each other and the legacy of #FeesMustFall protests. “#FeesMust fall taught me about protest. It gave me a courage to stand for something,” Shikwambane said. “We’ve shook things up.”