Everywhere I go I am keen to notice the ways in which people shake hands or give dap1. I am particularly fascinated by the myriad ways in which black people acknowledge one another and announce their relationship to current fashion and communication styles, displaying their insider status according to how they greet or shake hands. South Africa does not disappoint; there are many different handshakes in widespread use. As one would expect there is a more or less official handshake that men and women of all generations use. It is in three parts, the common clasp of hands, which slides up to clasping each other’s thumbs, and back to the common clasp of hands. Fair enough. But now there is a relatively new shake mostly used by young black males. You go to shake hands and then suddenly the initiator causes you to miss his hand, circling around and then finally grabbing the hand after one revolution. It is new enough that it is invariably executed with a mischievous smile or even laughter. When the person who did the slip grabs your hand he looks at you in the eye and signals his mirth and lack of ill will. (While unlike the US it is usually women who give dap by slapping five, I haven’t yet seen women use this gesture).
The Fees Must Fall movement of college students, who twice in two years shut down the university system in South Africa, is built upon the type of solidarity and slipperiness that is encapsulated in the current hip hand shake. The various players in the drama, the student activists, the general student body, the university officials and faculty, the police force, the ANC government, especially its Minister of Education, all are involved in a dance that is anything but straightforward and often with a gamesmanship akin to the revolving evasion that is highlighted in the current greeting.
The Fees Must Fall movement is a demand made by students that the ANC government make good on its promise to provide education for all of the nation’s citizens. The Bantu Education policies of the Apartheid government were particularly horrendous and its various legacies are alive and well. Whether you were classified as white, black, Indian, or so-called Coloured, determined which areas you could live in, where you could attend school, and even what curriculum you could study. Twenty-two years later the legacy of this system is all around us. I am a professor of music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. It is a formerly white university that was forced to amalgamate with the Indian, and black universities in the area (well, the black institution was what was known as a technicon and not a university per se). Now, since we live in the province of Zulu land, and because there is a very large Indian population in KZN, whites are as much a minority in the university as they are in the nation. Very little attention has been given to the disparities in primary and secondary education (largely associated with race) that continues to divide our university students. Most of my students come from high schools that do not have libraries, sports teams, musical education, extra curriculum activities, etc. And of course some students, especially those that go to “Model C” (previously all-white) schools or private schools are equipped with a much different level preparation for tertiary education.
As devastating as these disparities are, the real killer nationwide is financial. The cost of a college education exceeds the annual income of most black families. So, Fallists demand free education as the only way to make good the promise that all can have a tertiary education. Fees Must Fall is really the latest incarnation of the Decolonization movement that began a few years ago first with Rhodes Must Fall. Starting on university campuses, demands were made to remove the statues of Cecil Rhodes and other staunch colonialists-cum-philanthropists. These colonialist monuments and symbols were defaced as the movement spread throughout the nation. This led to the Decolonize our Curriculum, Decolonize the Book, and other movements.
Most commentators who are not activists within the various Fallist movements pretend to share the sentiments of the activists while making it known that they simply abhor the methods used by them. Most Fallists are peaceful, employing the famous toyi-toyi song/dance/demonstration that is one of the beautiful features of South African political protest. The energy of the toyi-toyi is interesting from an aesthetic point of view, but it is also powerful and at times frightening. Sometimes cars were overthrown and burned, buildings were vandalized, and even a library had a fire set. On the other hand, police shot students with rubber bullets, clubbed people, and allegedly even committed at least one rape. Apologists for the status quo say that violence is the wrong way to protest. (!) Sympathizers for the Fallists say that they are in a country with a long, long history of people turning a deaf ear to polite protests.
Fees Must Fall is distinguished further by the preponderance of female leadership. Gender is a topic that is debated fiercely in Mzansi, rivaling the ubiquitous discussion of race. The Decolonize Now movements have had protests within the protests involving the concerns of women and transgendered people especially. This is a critical intervention actually in a country whose rape statistics are the worst in the world and where several types of hetero normative patriarchy run amok.
At any rate, this is a time when there is a new black middle class graduating from colleges and universities, young people whose memories and lives are shaped more by the post 1994 South African than grand apartheid. They are, to be sure, a lumpen middle class, burdened by low salaries, high levels of unemployment and underemployment, and what is known culturally as “black tax,” the assumption that these young professionals will support their parents, younger siblings, and others in the rural areas or townships where they grew up wile being furthered burdened by heavy debts from high interest educational loans. With these burdens they are incensed at the level of colonial mentality evidenced in their university curriculums, in the treatment they receive in both the university settings and in the work place, and also the seemingly deaf ear turned to them by the government, including the agencies ostensibly designed to help them.
Here we are revisiting what happened in 1976 when revolutionary activism was revitalized and even led by school children who sacrificed their education and in some ways much of their potential lives for the movement. The Fallists are not being tortured or run out of the country, but they are being incarcerated, kicked out of school, and vilified in some corners. This occurs in a context in which the political adults are not setting viable examples. The ruling party is led by a person with over 700 corruption charges leveled against him, with serious breaches of governance and even decency, has a second in command who used to be a union leader but gave the ok for the massacre of striking miners at Marikana. Worse, this is a country that doesn’t show the political will to address this in a meaningful way. The two opposition parties are quite ineffectual. One is associated with whiteness and even with the Nationalist government during apartheid. The other is mired in the cult of personality, led by a political chameleon bad boy whose party is regularly physically ousted from parliament, apparently more invested in political theatre than on the ground organizing and improving the lives of the people. We have a national government that was built upon political and economic compromises that cow tow to capitalists and that virtually insure that most of its citizens live in poverty.
Small wonder that the Fallists are not brilliant tacticians, barely distinguishing between tactics and strategy. They are striking and thus delaying or ending their own educations; they are defacing even libraries, just as adults in Limpopo are burning down schools in protest of the zoning decisions being made. The entities that have the possibility to make the necessary changes are not engaged in any way that holds them accountable. So the protests over the forced use of Afrikaans in Stellenbosh University have no real results; the curriculums across the nation remain Eurocentric to a large extent, and while students were at first appeased by the announcement that there would be no fee increases, even that has proven false. So while the movement has certainly brought the nation into conversation about real things that need to be addressed, the Fallists have yet to pass any litmus test concerning political victories. But what they do do is make real the political vertigo of contemporary South Africa with all the élan of the revolving slip handshake.
Salim Washington was born in Memphis, Tennessee and grew up in Detroit, Michigan.
1 Giving dap has a general and specific meaning. In general to give someone dap is to praise that person. The other meaning is to give someone five, as in give me some skin or high five, etc.