The extraordinary student movement that has been rippling across South Africa raises the question of student agency in movements for social change. What role have students on the continent played in empowering protest movements? Have students been successful in touching off wider protests in society? In 2007 I published a book Revolt and Protest: Student Politics and Activism in Sub-Saharan Africa, below I post some of my conclusions.

‘The student-intelligentsia and student activism in sub-Saharan Africa’

University students, graduates and foreign educated and organised African students were able to play an important – some argue vital – role leading movements for national liberation in the 1940s and 1950s. They were frequently organised in exiled student groups, and fraternised closely with a left wing and communist milieu that converged and fed into their anti-imperialism. When this student intelligentsia returned, often after years overseas, they helped set up, lead and organise the nationalist forces that were gathering momentum. Their status as a student intelligentsia ensured that they could gain authority over movements that had very different social roots. They occupied a unique position between two social worlds, one represented by the West and symbolising modernisation and development, and another world that they had escaped in Africa. They rejected the latter and believed that independence would herald rapid state-led development of their backward societies and confirm their historical role in bringing this development to fruition. In many ways this explicit elitism – that was derived from their unique organisational and political coherence in colonial Africa – was the mantle handed to post-independence students.

There is an important element of this ‘elitism’ that continues to generate student activism. Students still regard themselves as being privileged in terms of their proximity to a European world – a world of technology, development and globalisation. It is this contradiction – a heady mix of poverty and elitism – that motivated student activists in Senegal and Zimbabwe during their recent political transitions in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As Mor Faye brilliantly described: “[i]t is us [students] who have learnt … at the university. It is us who have learnt what a computer is. Our parents understand that we know things that they don’t understand.” Their parents represent an old world, “an African culture, whereas we have a European culture that we have learnt. If we go to them they will accept it.” University students in sub-Saharan Africa – despite the almost total collapse of their material conditions from the heyday of the 1970s – have maintained a politically privileged position in society.

But there are other perhaps more dramatic examples of the continued importance of this group in contemporary Africa. One of the secrets of the student intelligentsia was their capacity to organise in national and international student unions and politically through access to a conceptual and intellectual world denied to most sections of society. The student milieu generated conditions that were at once internationalist – giving them access to international organisations and funds – while pulling students into ‘hyper-politicised’ spaces, in college and university campuses. Organisations could flourish without the rigid discipline of the workplace or the state-controlled streets. During the last twenty years the student intelligentsia has been propelled into new roles, under very different circumstances. Although they are no longer advocates of state capitalist development – that was an allusive goal long before the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe – they have become new political actors in diverse movements and groups across the continent.

During this period there has been an unprecedented transformation in Africa’s political economy, often connected to the policies of structural adjustment which has seen state industries and businesses collapse. These changes have often exacerbated processes of state decline leading in some cases to total collapse. In these conditions often the only group that is able to maintain a degree of cohesion is that of university students. The transition is often rapid, from participating in democratic struggles in civil society, a student intelligentsia is able to organise and lead rebel movements that follow (and help precipitate) state collapse.

The student intelligentsia has played numerous roles during the period of state decline and collapse. Perhaps most notably, university students have been active in the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism. They have been key to the Islamic movements that are now demonised around the world, partly as a result of the collapse in graduate employment and the erosion of the same certainties that undermined the status of students in sub-Saharan Africa. Chris Harman explains that Islamism has arisen in “societies traumatised by the impact of capitalism” but it is the crisis in the world economy in the last 30 years that has seen a rapid increase in these ideas. Harman emphasises that it was frequently students who formed the backbone of Islamist movements:

Students, the recent Arab speaking graduates and above all, the unemployed ex-students who formed a bridge to the very large numbers of discontented youth outside colleges who find that they cannot get college places … And through its influence over a wide layer of students, graduates and the intellectual unemployed, Islamism is able to spread out to dominate the propagation of ideas in the slums and shanty towns as a ‘conservative’ movement

It was the control and domination of Islamic ideas on the campuses of Algeria in the 1980s and 1990s that ensured that the Islamists were able to step into the “impoverished streets of the cities where students and ex-students mixed with a mass of other people scrabbling for a livelihood”. The convergence of forces – between an impoverished student and ex-student body and the ‘mass of other people’ – has manifested itself in a multiplicity of movements.

Similarly, the 11 September attack on New York was carried out by student suicide bombers. The leading figure in the attack is illustrative of these trends. Mohammad Atta was born in Kafr el-Sheikh in the Nile Delta, in what one report described as the “slightly down at heal Cairo suburb of Giza”. His family came from a branch of the intelligentsia that was angry at the opening out to the West by Anwar Sadat in the late 1970s. Atta graduated from a university that had become, by the early 1990s, a ferment of fundamentalist activity. He joined the Engineers Syndicate, one of a few professional associations in Egypt controlled by the Muslim Brotherhoods. He became appalled by the creation of what he regarded as a new class of Egyptian ‘fat cats.’ Volker Hauth, who studied with him in Germany, remembers “One of the main points of his critique was the contrast between a few rich people and the mass of people with barely enough to survive.”

Mohammed Atta is portentous of the movements for Islamic revival, inspired by the desire to reverse real injustices that have emerged violently across the third world in the last thirty years. A student intelligentsia has played a pivotal role in these movements, as the ideological champions of Islamic reforms and of rebel movements during state collapse. In each case they act as disgruntled victims of the economic and political disintegration going on around them. While students in the Muslim association of Senegalese students, AMEAN, in the 1950s could envisage a radical Islam, and a ‘revivalism’ that was linked to a progressive agenda for radical social change, today the collapse of this agenda has transformed student activists. As Diouf has written, these students, rather than being the agents of progressive social transformation, see themselves as the custodians of tradition: “Certain sections of youth assign themselves the role of guardians of a Muslim morality which justifies punitive expeditions against drugs, drunkenness and thieves.”

In general, Senegalese students have not assumed the ideological mantle of religious change that has characterised North African and Middle Eastern universities, nor have they spearheaded a Senegalese version of the Islamic revival. They have however played a crucial role in the separatist movement in the Casamance. Out of the economic crisis that has gripped the country, religious associations have grown substantially. Today there are many active Islamic groups. The country is full of Islamic schools, teaching Arabic, in wealthier suburbs and in poor neighbourhoods, in makeshift wooden huts and any improvised spaces. At the university a number of associations claim to instil the pure tradition of the Prophet Mohammed. However, what is striking about the Muslim associations that are active on the campus is their relative invisibility in the political life of the university. What connects most university students across the continent is their economic trajectory; as promises to students were shattered in the economic crisis, they were left without a secular or progressive agenda.

After the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a generation of intellectuals and leaders lost their ideological hold on the world. This has left its mark on social movements across the world. Although much recent student activism on the continent is notable for the lack of political debate, the celebrated ‘vanguardism’ of the 1970s (or the 1980s in the case of Zimbabwe) was a consequence of the collision of forces that are not present today. This does not preclude the development of these politics today.

Converging forces

Higher education reforms have transported student identity into the centre of the structural crisis. It is worth reiterating. Mamdani in an important study has seen these processes at work: “previously a more or less guaranteed route to position and privilege, higher education seemed to lead more and more students to the heart of the economic and social crisis.” Students are no longer the ‘transitory’ social group waiting to be allotted government employment; on the contrary they have become pauperised, converging more and more with the wider urban poor: social groups that they had historically regarded as their ‘responsibility’ to liberate. Are they a marginal social group? They are only marginal in so far as the whole of urban society has become marginalised from the formal economy, forced increasingly into a precarious world of causal and informal employment. In one important extent they have become less marginal to the social word that they sought to change in the 1960s and 1970s.

There is an international dimension to these developments that should not be ignored. The neo-liberal processes that have led to the privatisation and commodification of university education in sub-Saharan Africa have had a global reach. Across the world student movements have grappled with the changing nature of university education. Nowhere is this clearer than in France, where globally the student movement is perhaps at its strongest. Here there is a direct symmetry in the lives and experiences of students and the working class. This is explained brilliantly by the Marxist writer Daniel Bensaid, when he describes the differences between the current period and the so-called high-point of student unrest in 1968:

The present movement is directly based on a social question – the destruction of workplace regulations and the generalised casualisation of employment, which is common both in education and to workers. The question of the link, and not just solidarity, between the two is therefore immediate.

Finally, the fundamental difference is with the general context and in particular with the way unemployment weighs on things. In 1968, the unemployed were counted in tens of thousands in a period of great expansion, so students had no worries about the future.

This is a central issue. Unemployment in the 1960s counted in tens of thousands, was practically full employment: meaning that unemployment one week would be followed by employment the next. Students were a privileged part of this stable economic milieu. However in France today Bensaid continues, “six million people are either without work or causally employed.” This has impacted enormously on the identity of students today, who require no ideological leap to connect their activism to the labour movement. The link, as Bensaid argues, is immediate. Students do not simply dabble in the social world outside the university campus – committed as they might have been in 1968 to building the bonds of solidarity with the labour movement – they are a central component of it. Often this connection is explicit in terms of student involvement in the labour force, but there is also a political dimension to these changes:

The link is natural, and the labour movement is less closed, or even hostile, than it was towards students in 1968.
At the time this hostility, or wariness, was fostered in particular by the workerist demagoguery of the Communist Party…
Today relations are not so closed. On the one hand the ability of the bureaucratic machines to control things has been considerably weakened.
On the other the overall expansion of secondary and higher education means it is no longer possible to portray students as an exclusively middle class layer.

These comments could as easily be made about the experience in much of Africa, buffeted by the same blows of globalisation. However student activism internationally is still instilled with an important element of elitism, though now tempered by the realities of campus poverty. They have a considerable ability to mobilise in relatively autonomous urban spaces, achieving an organisational coherence that is rarely matched by others in the first instance. However, the power (and necessity) of students to set-off wider social protests is vital to their survival and sustaining a movement that will die if it remains isolated in the university.

Those who would wish to promote and spread rebellion must learn from the experiences of protest and resistance in Africa and play close attention to the nature and composition of the popular forces that have emerged in recent years. The voice of students in this convergence of forces is a vital witness to the reorganisation of protest and activism in sub-Saharan Africa.