Campuses in Africa ‘re-centred’ as terrains of struggle

Campus protests should be recognised as a critical method for “seizing, disrupting, subverting and transforming the space and imagination of the university and society, which it has historically been and continues to be”, the authors of a study interrogating campus protests over two decades in Africa have said.

“Just as the university emerged as the primary locus of struggles against colonialism, authoritarianism and austerity, we contend that the campus continues to be a salient context for student and worker mobilisations, which animate new visions, praxes and demands for social transformation,” Professor Krystal Strong at Rutgers University and Jimil Ataman at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States write in their article.

The findings, identifying Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt as the countries where most of the protests have taken place during the period of study, 2000-18, resonate with the wave of students’ protests that have swept across the continent.

They range from Tunisian students who have protested in solidarity with their French counterparts on 7 March opposing capitalism and the oppression of workers, to Moroccan students opposing their government’s diplomatic relations with Israel, and South African students demonstrating on some campuses where financial and accommodation difficulties are preventing some from continuing with their studies.

The protests mapped in the study were caused primarily by university policies, campus infrastructure and quality of life concerns as well as political and government-related matters.

The study focusing on student protests titled ‘Locus of Struggle: The African campus and contemporary protest forms’ published in the Journal of African Cultural Studies, found that, over the past 20 years across Africa, 66% of protests at educational institutions took place at campuses suggesting that “Africa is witnessing a resurgence of higher educational activism and youth-led popular struggles”.

According to the authors, the number of protests may be higher because protests are often under-reported in the media and information about them may be suppressed by the state.

The study pointed out that “contemporary campus protests re-centre the university in the growing literature on Africa’s third wave of popular protests”. It argued that repression of activism by the state and institutions validates the need for campus-based struggles and the right to resist in society, both on and off the campus.

“For these reasons, the key intervention of this article is to challenge the current tendency in scholarship on popular struggles in Africa to overlook the significant role of the university as a locus of struggle, which has the effect of both minimising and de-legitimising campus protests at a time when school-based protests are both on the rise and under attack,” the authors pointed out.

At a time when young people use technology-mediated social movements, the campus should be given prominence, according to the authors.

What students protest about

The study traced African campus protest in two ways – as a tactical form, to explore the major catalysts, political strategies and institutional and state responses to campus protests today; and as a spatial form, to examine spatialities of struggle through which campus geographies are produced, contested and remade.

This was carried out by collecting supplementary data on protest events, including information (when available) on the number and types of actors involved, geographic data, targets of the political action, causes of contention, the responses by school and government authorities, relevant connections to prior protests or social movements, and the resolution (if any).

The researchers catalogued 1,109 incidents of protest across all African countries from 2000 to 2018, covering events at primary, secondary and tertiary level. A total of 732 protests – 66% – were recorded at higher education institutions. They recorded that 87% of the protest events identified were led by or involved students.

University policies were the most frequent cause of protests, representing 40% of the total number of protests.

Grievances related to campus infrastructure and quality of life were the next-most frequent cause of campus protests, representing 18% of total protest events.

Broader national issues, including political leadership and government policies, were also regular targets for campus protest, representing 32% of the total number of protests.

The study identified different protest techniques to advance their causes, including non-violent tactics such as demonstrations and marches; the disruption of campus activities through strikes, boycotts, and roadblocks; digital practices related to online and social media activism and violence ranging from vandalism to property damage.

Riots with demonstrations were, by far, the most common approach reported for campus protests followed by strikes and boycotts.

All the information was included in a database and the map is publicly accessible online.

“By centring school protests throughout the continent and developing an interactive platform to crowdsource data, this work aims to highlight the many ways school-based actors across the African continent are constituting, imagining, and materialising political struggles,” the authors noted.