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The politics of protest

- Ufrieda Ho

Protests are a hallmark of Wits’ history and have contributed to the University’s legacy of social activism, democracy and constitutionality.

Always uncomfortable, often traumatic, protests are about speaking truth to power – and they are a South African human right. Ufrieda Ho asked Professor Noor Nieftagodien, Head of the History Workshop at Wits, for his reflections.

The year that Wits came into being in 1922 was a wild one by all accounts. Protests and mineworkers striking, coupled with underlying race-based jobs wars on the mines, exploded into the Rand Rebellion. Just months later, Wits was granted full university status in a young city full of unquiet energy and contestation. So over its 100 years, Wits has had a knotted history of protest, resistance and contention tied to capital versus labour, racial division, as well as the poisoned treasures of the extractive industries and the making and re-making of a city of gold.

Nieftagodien recounts some of these impactful historical events in Wits’ history, and offers insights into what comes next in safeguarding the right to protest, nurturing activism, the need for deeper reckoning regarding the growing securitisation of campus, and the impact of how a time of isolation, clickivism and social media noise reframes the questions of how a university of the future reimagines its role outside the academy.

The rise of student activism

Picking up from the tumult of strikes of the 1920s, Nieftagodien says that the mineworkers’ strikes in the 1920s took place in an era of anti-fascist struggles, mirroring the groundswell across Europe from around the mid-1930s to the 1950s. Added to this push against oppressive regimes came the rise of the Nationalist Party in 1948. It would shape a response from Wits to defend its autonomy and remain an ‘open’ university, even though black students were a small minority on campus.

History of protests at Wits | Curiosity 14: #Wits100 ©

From the mid-1960s, more radical voices were heard in the ranks of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), who were concerned about the complicity of universities in supporting apartheid. By the late 1960s there was growing dissatisfaction that the predominantly white NUSAS would not or could not prioritise a more radical response to fighting racist structures within the University and the country. Black students, led by Steve Biko, left NUSAS to establish the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO), which inaugurated the formation of the Black Consciousness Movement, Nieftagodien says. The NUSAS-SASO split would be crucial in shaping political resistance.

Black consciousness

“The importance of the decision to split was confirmed by the 1970s. The SASO grew significantly, not only at the former white universities but also at black universities, giving rise to the stronghold of black consciousness at the University of Durban-Westville and the University of the Western Cape,” says Nieftagodien.

University-based activism would fill the gap in the struggle in the 1970s when organisations, including the SASO, were banned. Nieftagodien says that the emergence of the Azanian Student Organisation (AZASO), although regarded as the successor to SASO, had by the early 1980s adopted non-racialism and support for the Freedom Charter. This marked a convergence again between black and white students, with AZASO and NUSAS forging a strong alliance, he explains.

A climate of disquiet

The political climate in the aftermath of the Soweto Uprising in 1976 into the 1980s would see Wits, particularly students, supported by some academics, take a strong stand against the apartheid regime – but it would mean ratcheting up police brutality and violence. Police stormed campuses and harassed and beat up students. Nieftagodien says that it forced the English-speaking universities to take a more public stand against apartheid.

This was also a moment that marked an era of stronger off-campus activism aligned to trade union organisations that were not banned at the time. Fighting for workers’ rights would be a crucial layer of pushback in the broader fight to end apartheid.

Wits and dissenting voices

Fast forward to the democratic era and protests have not strayed far from workers’ rights, including the in-sourcing of workers at Wits. Protests have extended to struggles to transform university curricula; to decisively address gender-based violence and rape culture; to reform fee structures, to address historical debt; to protest against xenophobia; to demand treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS; and to acknowledge the unequal burdens on mostly black students without financial means and support. It would make the #FeesMustFall movement of 2015/2016 another critical turning point in the history of Wits and South Africa.

Alongside student-led protests, some academics and staff took a public stance during the protests.

“We were able to mobilise several hundred academics across the country to sign a letter demanding that the national government increase subsidies to support the project of ensuring the viability of public universities,” says Nieftagodien.

Post-pandemic securitisation

Nieftagodien is concerned that since #FeesMustFall, Wits has become increasingly securitised. The 2020-2022 Covid-19 lockdown years added to campus life growing quiet. Nieftagodien’s opinion is that what should emerge from this period is a reinvigoration of campuses as spaces not just for learning, research and scholarship, but to be “spaces of critical thinking and of independence that allows – at the right moment – the environment for academics, students and administrators to take a stand in support of the good of the public.”

Witsies with the edge

Jerome September, the Dean of Student Affairs, points out that Wits is not unique in terms of protest but he says that it is an important legacy that Wits activists over the decades have been at the forefront of speaking truth to power, shifting national priorities and sounding wake-up calls for society.

One such activist is Emeritus Professor in the School of Electrical and Information Engineering, Barry Dwolatzky, who turned 70 this year. He says that his activism was shaped from the moment he stepped onto campus in 1971. Dwolatzky, who is currently working on his memoir, pulls an intergenerational thread through protests at Wits. He says: “We still sit with the big issues that reached a peak in 2015 and 2016 with #FeesMustFall, that haven’t gone away. At the same time those issues were not dissimilar to the questions that we were asking in the 60s and 70s about what shape education should take – how could it be significant and meaningful, who would it include and who would be left behind?”

Having shared 51 years of Wits’ 100-year journey, he says the ‘what next?’ chapters are to be written by a new generation of activists. “My role is to tell my story, to reinforce the need for community mobilisation and to keep asking better questions, but it’s not to tell young people what to do – they know what they want and the resolutions that they are willing to fight for,” he says.

September believes that it would be a failure if students left Wits without recognising that activism, protest and active citizenship are components of democracy and democracy building. This could be in raising awareness of climate change, better public healthcare for all, or protesting against state capture and corruption.

“If we are to develop young people to be future leaders of organisations across all sectors, then they must be able to have to deal with activism, to deal with differences of opinion and with strong expressions of these opinions, and be able to make sense of where they fit in the broader debates and issues being raised.”

  • Professor Noor Nieftagodien, Head of the History Workshop at Wits University.
  • Ufrieda Ho is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced by Wits Communications and the Research Office. Read more in the 14th issue, themed: #Wits100 where we celebrate a century of research excellence that has shaped today and look forward to how our next-generation researchers will impact the next 100 years.