Photo by “the Citizen” of ‘Fees Must Fall’ Protest

By Amy Zavitz, MAGG Graduate (2017)

Through the CIVICUS Monitor, CIVICUS tracks the openness of civic space around the world with an evaluation of freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly. It then ranks countries on a five-point scale, with the categories of closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed and open. Within this system, Canada and South Africa are both categorized as ‘narrowed,’ meaning that in both contexts, while citizens are allowed to exercise their rights of expression, assembly and associated, violations of these rights persist.

In my previous blog post I discussed the importance of having the ability to speak, and the
responsibility that comes with occupying privileged spaces that one can speak from. How we speak, and the lens through which we speak, carries significant weight in how people and places are understood. When we speak, we have the ability to resist or refuse a system or structure, especially when this speech is part of a collective.

But, how does meaningful change translate from speech? What is encompassed in the passage from symbolic resistance to transformative refusal of a system or structure? Drawing on archives of lived experience from both Canadian and South African contexts, I hope to explore this question.

When we speak as a collective, often through protest, we are resisting the dominant system and the structural status quo. The degree to which this resistance is either repressed or accommodated within a given space may be regarded as a direct relation of the relative degree of openness and/or closure of said space.

If the process of disruption is within the acceptable boundaries of the state, it is often accommodated. For example, in Canada I’ve attended protests that engaged with police and municipal authorities to safeguard the space through roadblocks and accompaniment. In South Africa, a number of recent protests seeking to highlight corruption within the government have also assumed this form, with mass protests being comfortably accommodated within the parameters of the established order. Through this type of protest, there is essentially no fundamental change, the existing order is stretched without breaking and there is no real threat to status quo.

But, when the collective speech threatens or ruptures constituted borders, usually the state and repressive agents are sent in to squash resistance. In South Africa, for example, ‘Fees Must Fall’ is an on-going student-led protest in response to fee increases in South African universities. In its early phases, ‘Fees Must Fall’ was peacefully accommodated within the parameters of the established order and even managed to garner significant public enthusiasm. However, what started as a peaceful mass movement eventually spiraled into a cascade of violence as established boundaries were steadily trespassed and ruptured, thereby resulting in the mobilization of repressive force under the aegis the state. In this regard, many students were subjected to brutal treatment at the hands of private security and the police, with teargas, stun grenades and rubber bullets constituting the order of the day. In some cases fatalities occurred. As of present, ‘Fees Must Fall’ has receded into dormancy while the set of contradictions underlying it remain largely unresolved.

Some say we have reached the ‘end’ of history, that all future possibilities for systemic transformation shall remain firmly ensconced within the constitutive parameters of the established order. Others argue that history has not yet reached its end but is instead experiencing a reawakening through recent waves of counter-hegemonic resistance around the world.

Whatever the case, few words could be more apt than those of Edgar Morin, who once wrote that “[history] has not reached a stagnant end, nor is it triumphantly marching towards the radiant future. It is being catapulted into an unknown adventure.”