A perspective of women-led protest movements from the South African Fees Movement
Megan Zerez | March 2017

In October of 2015, South Africa saw the birth of the Fees Must Fall movement (stylized as #feesmustfall) in response to the announcement of a universal 8% public university tuition increase. FeesMustFall quickly grew to be the largest student led protest movement in national history since the fall of apartheid in 1994. Beginning at the University of the Witswaterstrand, sister protests emerged in each of South Africa’s major public universities by the end of the month. To give a general sense of scale, within their first six months, protests resulted in the temporary shut-down of nearly all of these institutions, an estimated R300b (23.5m USD) in damages and thousands of student arrests (Gqirana, 2016) (Langa, et al., 2016). While the movement succeeded in catapulting the decades old issue of university funding and racial inequality to the forefront of the national conversation, it also brought important concerns about intersectionality and inclusiveness within the movement itself. While later incarnations of the movement in 2016 and the present 2017 cycle have placed increased emphasis on many precepts of 3rd wave feminism, the movement and the primary response remains largely male dominated and patriarchal in nature, as evidenced by the predominance of cis-gender male students and personnel in highly visible power positions, the rising prevalence of politically backed leadership groups (which are often male dominated), displays of violence (by both protesters and police) justified as acts of masculinity. These subtle trends can be tied to ever increasing alienation and dwindling diversity amongst student protestors and more acutely, incidents of rape, acts violence against women and the exclusion of gender non-conforming students on certain campuses. Critics have been quick to point out that trends and events have been the cause of much conflict and splintering within the movement, arguably weakening its overall impact. On a broader scale, however, these issues are indicative of larger problems—that regardless of one’s place in the academic, protest, or political communities, men and women are still far from equals.

As millennials and members of the ‘Born-Free’ generation (the first children to be born in post-Apartheid South Africa) the students involved in the FeesMustFall must reconcile modern liberalism (notably precepts of 3rd Wave Feminism) with their nation’s delicate relationship with its tumultuous, oppressive and violent past. At the University of Cape Town (UCT) in particular, the current FeesMustFall movement largely sprang out of what was initially a secondary demonstration, which notably placed strong emphasis on intersectionality: ‘We all have certain oppressions and certain privileges and this must inform our organising so that we do not silence groups among us, and so that no one should have to choose between their struggles. Our movement endeavours to make [intersectionality] a reality in our struggle for decolonisation’ (#RhodesMustFall, 2015). #RhodesMustFall arose as a protest of a prominently displayed statue of the noted British imperialist, John Cecil Rhodes, but also sought to reconcile UCT’s past as a product of colonial and apartheid power with the diverse racial, socioeconomic and gender background of modern day South Africa—Mandela’s famously named ‘Rainbow Nation’. Perhaps in accordance with this ideology, protesters for RhodesMustFall represented a broad swatch of the university community, transcending racial, gender, professional, party-political and age lines (Langa, et al., 2016). Like RhodesMustFall, previous protests at UCT demonstrated an acute awareness of the gender pay gap, South Africa’s significant sexual violence epidemic (once deemed to be the ‘Rape Capital of the World’, with a staggering 28-37% of men admitting to rape in 2003), and disproportionate representation of female and black academics and students at the once all-white university. (Jewkes, et al., 2012) (Langa, et al., 2016). However, as the fees protest at UCT moved into the public spotlight, the founding pillars—once defined as pan-Africanism, Black Consciousness, and Black Radical Feminism—did not ultimately hold.

The timelines of these student-led protests, unsurprisingly, are intimately tied to the academic calendar. During winter and summer breaks, many students will return to their hometowns. At UCT in particular, a power vacuum arose due to the stagnation of the long 2015 summer vacation (which in South Africa occurs from December to February). At many universities, the two academic semesters following summer of 2015 saw a radical shift in leadership, demographic and overall ideological tone. Where the initial movement and its plenaries were said to be largely leaderless, several definite leadership coalitions emerged during 2016, with significant membership overlap. The two prominent groups at present are Shackville TRC and SRC Candidates[1]. The Shackville Truth and Reconciliation Council was originally a group of students who played primary negotiation roles in the aftermath of the pivotal ‘Shackville’ protest. The SRC Candidates were originally student candidates running for Student Government positions (Student Representative Council) who adopted leadership roles in the Fees movement when elections were cancelled by university management. It is perhaps worth noting that many South African political parties operate youth wings, which often play large roles in student body elections. With the entrance of the SRC Candidates/Shackville TRC coalitions, UCT’s chapter of FeesMustFall saw significant politicization. The once prominent goal of Black Radical Feminism had largely been eclipsed by the issue of worker’s rights, a common aim of the parent political bodies behind the SRC Candidate/Shackville coalitions. Local UCT plenaries in October-November 2016 were occupied by clashes between opposing political groups, primarily, the South African Student Congress (SASCO), an ANC allied group and the Pan African Student Movement of Azania (PASMA). In November 2016, South Africa’s third largest party, the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) released a statement pledging

The crowd gathered outside Parliament on October 26th 2016. Cardboard signs convey the diverse voices of the crowd: ‘FEELESS AND FEARLESS,’ ‘OUTSOURCING [of workers] Must End,’ ‘LET THERE BE WAR AND DEATH.’ Several EFF leaders are visible by their red berets.
support for the controversial movement[2]. EFF lawyers have also aided in the trials of several notable Fees activists. Youth leagues and more radical political groups tend to be male dominated in terms of membership, and nearly always in terms of leadership (IPSOS South Africa Polling, 2013) (ANC Youth League, 2001). This male dominated leadership structure of these political organizations was easily transmuted to Fallist movements nationwide (Langa, et al., 2016).

While men seem to serve as the most visible face of the movement, i.e. plenary chairs and rally leaders, women undeniably play vital ‘behind the scenes’ roles. At the March 29th 2017 negotiation meeting at UCT between protesters and university management, the room is dominated by women, both protesters and university representatives. (Shackville TRC Facebook Page, 2016-2017) These negotiations are almost always lengthy and tedious, often occupying the better part of the day. Following a plenary witnessed in October of 2016, which had dissolved into an unproductive political debate, a small group of female organizers met to discuss a practical course of action for a large city-wide march to Parliament on the 26th. The lengthy plenaries and sit-ins frequently follow a long day of demonstrations. It has become common practice for food and water to be donated and distributed to attendees. This ‘support work’ is largely undertaken by several, predominantly female groups: non-black women[3], older women who have joined the movement because of its support of domestic workers, and black women. This issue of visibility is compounded by the fact that the majority of arrests are black male students. Aside from race and gender profiling by South African police and private paramilitary security forces, it is statistically more likely for arrests to occur during and immediately after violent incidents. Historically, violent altercations almost always are instigated by male participants, with a fairly even split between police and protester. The arrest of male protestors is thus frequently very visible and dramatic. These arrests and the resulting court cases and bail pleas are often highly lionizing, with significant social media presence, production of memorabilia (for fundraising purposes) and demonstrations outside courthouses. (Shackville TRC Facebook page, 2016-2017) Notable cases include Masixole Mlandu (UCT, PASMA), Bonginkosi Khanyile (DUT[4], EFF) and Mcebo Dlamini (Wits[5], EFF). A number of female arrests have also occurred, but these are often done clandestinely and are seldom publicized—as such it is difficult to assess the exact numbers.

South African Police argues with male protestors (not shown). This interaction later broke into a minor fist fight. Background: the statue of controversial Afrikaaner politician Louis Botha presides over masses gathered outside Parliament on October 26th 2016.

The fees protest remains highly polarizing within South African society, largely because of the acts of violence that were attributed to it. Early in the founding days of the movement, an effort emerged to develop the ideological identity of the group, which today frequently references the works of Apartheid era activists like Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon. Fanon in particular is known for his work The Wretched of the Earth, in which he lays out a justification for the use of violence in order to dismantle colonialism. The Fees Movement is frequently defined as a movement to ‘decolonize’ academia—that the racial, financial and socioeconomic barriers that black students face are strong vestiges of the colonial and Apartheid governments—all too fresh in the memory of the young Republic of South Africa. In the popular uprisings that made several male protestors into icons, Fanon’s work is frequently cited to justify acts of violence or incitations of such acts. Masixole Mlandu, who has become a figurehead of the movement at UCT and in the Western Cape, began a recent facebook post ‘TODAY WE SHUT DOWN, TOMORROW WE WILL SHOOT DOWN’ (Mlandu, 2017) Many young men within the movement have co-opted a persona of militaristic masculinity, in the style of anti-apartheid icons of the 1970s and 80s in order to rally support and morale. One of the most interesting and common hallmarks of South African protests is the performance of struggle songs (Toyitoy-i). Many of the popular songs are variations of anti-apartheid era anthems, and sometimes romanticize a description of struggle that sometime may seem to the outsider to dance an uncomfortable line between the literal and symbolic. Some of these lyrics are particularly heated: ‘iAzania Izwe Lethu, sizolithatha nge Bhazuka’ (Azania is our land, we will take it back through the barrel of a gun), ‘Emakhaya kuzokhala isibhamu, xha sithath’ izwe lethu iAzania’ (Gun shots will be heard at home, when we take back our land Azania) and ‘Dubula, dubula, dubula nges’bhamu’ (Shoot, shoot, shoot with a gun). (Ndelu, 2016) While many South Africans see the provocative lyrics as symbolic, there have certainly been a few exceptions to the rule.

Lindwe Dhlamini leads a march of graduate students and academics to a negotiation at UCT’s administrative building on October 31st 2016. She had been in hiding at a professor’s home in a nearby town to avoid arrest.

While both men and women participate in struggle songs and marches, there are definite de-facto male designated songs. Struggle songs are seen as a uniquely black South African cultural practice: they are typically sung in Xhosa, Zulu, or Sesotho languages, which are primarily spoken by black South Africans. The movement has often struggled to define its membership and demographics, and the adoption of the highly visible, upbeat and joyful struggle song serves as more than just an effective morale booster, but also as a means of recentering the movement around its focus as a black led and Black Conscious group. It is not inconceivable that these practices are far more effective an exclusion tool than expected: it is less common to see other so-called Biko Blacks initiate and participate the performance of the struggle song. (Langa, et al., 2016)

The Fees movement in South Africa raises many important and valid concerns about the state of higher education, decolonization, and the latent racial and socio-economic tensions that have become integral to South African history.  What is perhaps less obvious is the ways in which FeesMustFall is a reflection of South Africa’s fickle relationship between feminism and misogyny. These are small and subtle impacts that cannot and should not be underestimated, and have shown to have a sizable impact on the success, trajectory and public opinion of the movement outside the university, but also outside South Africa. News of the protests has not been widely disseminated outside the country, largely eclipsed by Brexit and the American election. The recent Women’s March on Washington, a reaction to the election of Donald Trump, found itself also facing criticism for what some would perceive to be its lackluster attempts at intersectionality. Perhaps many would agree that a woman’s place is in the revolution, but in practice, her place remains unstable, despite being tremendously important.





ANC Youth League, 2001. ORGANISATIONAL REPORT TO 21st NATIONAL CONGRESS: 1998 – 2001, s.l.: ANC Youth League.

Biko, S., 1971. The Definition Of Black Consciousness. s.l., South African Student Organization.

Gqirana, T., 2016. Counting the Cost of #FeesMustFall protests. [Online]
Available at: http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/counting-the-cost-of-feesmustfall-protests-20160412
[Accessed 26 March 2017].

IPSOS South Africa Polling, 2013. Profiles of the supporters of the three biggest political parties in South Africa, s.l.: IPSOS.

Jewkes, R. et al., 2012. What we Know and What We Don’t: Single and Multiple Perpetrator Rape in South Africa. SA Crime Quarterly, September.Volume 41.

Langa, M. et al., 2016. #Hashtag: An Analysis of the FeesMustFall Movement at South African Universities, Johannesburg: Center for the Study of Violence and Recociliation.

Mlandu, M., 2017. Facebook.com. [Online]
Available at: https://www.facebook.com/masixole.mlandu/posts/1145440908917964
[Accessed 30 March 2017].

Ndelu, S., 2016. A Rebellion of the Poor: Fallism at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, s.l.: Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

Shackville TRC Facebook Page, 2016-2017. Facebook.com. [Online]
Available at: https://www.facebook.com/shackvilleTRC/
[Accessed 28 March 2017].

All Photographs taken by Megan Zerez. Cape Town, 2016


[1] The Shackville TRC Facebook page is more or less synonymous with the main Fees Must Fall page at UCT.

[2] Statement unavailable due to present internet blockade of EFF website

[3] Following the transition from RhodesMustFall to FeesMustFall, the emerging leadership adopted the official stance that the movement was to be limited to ‘Biko Blacks’—defined by the activist Stephen Biko ‘as those who are by law or tradition politically, economically and socially discriminated against as a group in the South African society and identifying themselves as a unit in the struggle towards the realization of their aspirations.’ (Biko, 1971) This is widely interpreted to be inclusive of all groups except for white, cis-gender straight men. In practice at UCT, non-black participants are typically white or mixed race females.

[4] Durban University of Technology

[5] University of the Witswaterstrand