Your guide to the literature inspiring SA’s student 'revolution'

28 September 2016 - 15:03 By Deneesha Pillay

South Africa’s university student revolt has given new life to radical authors of previous generations as they draw on their ideas to fight fees and demand a “free‚ decolonised education”.

Among the works which are fueling the ideas behind the fees protests are the anti-colonialism writings of Frantz Fanon – originally from the Caribbean island of Martinique but who began writing scathing critiques from France in the 1950s – and Steve Biko‚ the celebrated Black Consciousness leader killed by the apartheid state in 1977.

But other writers include contemporary Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in whose 2013 novel Americanah‚ black women’s hair serves as a symbol to illustrate the central character’s struggle against racism.


South Africa’s students are also drawing on earlier works‚ like the early 20th century work of “W.E.B.” du Bois‚ a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peopled in the United States and who produced influential writings railing against racism.

Tarryn de Kock‚ a researcher and postgraduate at the Centre for International Teacher Education as well as a former Politics and International Relations student at Rhodes University‚ said there was a wide range of both local and international thinkers “who have become part of the conversation around decoloniality and decolonised education”.

“There is a broad range of literature that South African students are using to inform their perspectives‚ both locally and from abroad‚ and spanning at least the last century or two‚” she said.


“Classic and contemporary authors on issues of racism and the psychosocial effects of race thinking include WEB du Bois‚ Aime Cesaire‚ Walter Rodney‚ Paul Gilroy‚ Marcus Garvey‚ Steve Biko‚ Amilcar Cabral and Frantz Fanon.

“They wrote on the experiences of black people in places such as the USA‚ the Caribbean‚ Europe and Africa.

“Garvey‚ Biko‚ Rodney and Cabral also reflected on the economic effects of colonialism on black people‚ how underdevelopment and deprivation were secured as a generational default‚ and how structures of economic‚ political‚ cultural and educational power facilitated the suppression of colonial subjects.”

De Kock‚ 23‚ said Fanon has been especially popular because of “almost prophetic discussions” about the “post colony” in his book The Damned of the Earth‚ where he discusses what happens after liberation and how‚ based on the structures set up under colonialism‚ particular forms of power and power struggles come to characterise the newly liberated post-colonial state.


Ncedisa Mpemnyama‚ 33‚ a University of the Western Cape student in sociology and psychology‚ who spoke to TMG Digital during protests at the University of Cape Town‚ said he had found inspiration in Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and Biko’s I Write What I like.

“What I have come to realise is that the cycle of poverty that is constantly perpetuated and structured on black people‚ gives us very little chance to succeed.

“It almost seems as though there is genocide on young blacks who have become so used to suffering.

“We need to change the conversation. We are often not taken seriously but we are indeed the future leaders of this country‚” he said.

Panashe Chigumadzi‚ activist‚ writer‚ and curator of the Abantu Literary Festival‚ said that there was not always consensus about the relevance of literature in student protests.


Chigumadzi said there were often “contestations as to who has the right interpretation of what is being said‚ when you put literature into practice”.

“There’s a saying by Bob Marley... ‘He who feels it knows it’. Even as a writer I need to say that literature is great but I think you just need to walk outside and engage with what is currently happening‚” she said.

“If you just have a sense of empathy and you try to understand what black people go through‚ particularly poor black people‚ then you should understand.

“You need to be receptive to what people are saying. Students have tried to speak at nauseam and write pieces about this so a lot of it involves us looking into our hearts‚ beyond reaching for more books‚ speak to each other and I think we will get a whole lot more‚” Chigumadzi added.

Eight books and writings that will help you tap into the mind of student activists (Descriptions of the books below are extracts from the publishers’ notes)

Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation by Malaika wa Azania

The struggle of the generations before that of the Born Frees was a struggle for political freedom and democracy and was the foundation for revolution and reform but not the ultimate goal.

Malaika contests the notion of the born-free generation when it is a generation that was born in the midst of a struggle for economic freedom and the quest for the realization of the objectives of the African Renaissance.

The book's purpose is to give an alternative narrative to the existing one that suggests that Malaika’s is a generation of apolitical and desensitised people.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A powerful‚ tender story of race and identity by the award-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun.

Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West.

Beautiful‚ self-assured Ifemelu heads for America‚ where despite her academic success‚ she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time.

Quiet‚ thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her‚ but with post-9/11 America closed to him‚ he instead plunges into a dangerous‚ undocumented life in London.

Fifteen years later‚ they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria‚ and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland.

Dog Eat Dog by Niq Mhlongo

Dingz is an average Wits student who spends his time partying with his friends‚ picking up girls‚ skipping lectures‚ making up elaborate excuses for missing exams‚ and struggling to make ends meet.

Dingz‚ a bright‚ articulate student‚ and his circle of friends like to sit around drinking and discussing AIDS‚ racism‚ history and South African politics.

They also have some hair-raising adventures; like being kidnapped by taxi-drivers‚ contracting gonorrhea and trying to fake a death certificate.

The novel's constant backdrop is the subtle but institutionalized racism at Dingz's university; which threatens to deny him financial aid.

Dingz is an intelligent and likable character -- but he is certainly no saint. His anger at the racism around him is sometimes over-the-top but certainly not hard to understand‚ and his self-aware‚ cynical usage of the 'race card' is at times incredibly amusing.

This is an authentic‚ witty‚ slice-of-life piece of fiction set at the time of the first South African democratic elections.

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

This first novel‚ set in colonial Rhodesia during the 1960s‚ centres on the coming of age of a teenage girl‚ Tambu‚ and her relationship with her British-educated cousin Nyasha.

Tambu‚ who yearns to be free of the constraints of her rural village‚ especially the circumscribed lives of the women‚ thinks her dreams have come true when her wealthy uncle offers to sponsor her education.

But she soon learns that the education she receives at his mission school comes with a price. At the school she meets the worldly and rebellious Nyasha‚ who is chafing under her father's authority.

Raised in England‚ Nyasha is so much a stranger among her own people that she can no longer speak her native language.

Tambu can only watch as her cousin‚ caught between two cultures‚ pays the full cost of alienation.

 Where We Stand: Class Matters by bell hooks

Drawing on both her roots in Kentucky and her adventures with Manhattan Coop boards‚ Where We Stand is a successful black woman's reflection--personal‚ straight forward‚ and rigorously honest--on how our dilemmas of class and race are intertwined‚ and how we can find ways to think beyond them.

Unimportance by Thando Mgqolozana

Mgqolozana addressed the student crisis head-on by inhabiting the persona of Zizi‚ who is the favourite to win an election for SRC president‚ Mgqolozana reveals an intimate knowledge of student politics and student grievances.

On the one hand the novel functions as parable for party politics all over the world but on the other it also specific to South African students in the 21st century.

Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

Frantz Fanon's seminal work on the trauma of colonisation‚ The Wretched of the Earth made him the leading anti-colonialist thinker of the twentieth century.

Steve Biko "The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed."

Like all of Steve Biko's writings‚ those words testify to the passion‚ courage‚ and keen insight that made him one of the most powerful figures in South Africa's struggle against apartheid.