South African Students’ Question: Remake the University or Restructure Society?

by Alexandre Publia

[Image above: A woman holds up a protest sign reading “1976?” during South Africa’s 2015 October Fees Must Fall protests. Media Credit: Imraan Christian and Rhodes Must Fall]


From South Africa to India, Hong Kong to Chile, Canada to the UK, and California to Missouri and beyond, student protests worldwide are at a crossroads.

In 2015 October, South African students led the “Fees Must Fall” protests, which culminated in a weeks-long national shutdown that halted ~10% tuition increases. In the largest protests since the 1976 Soweto Student Uprisings, university students led thousands in a march on the national capitol. In the Western Cape, students took over flagship universities, such as University of Cape Town (UCT) and Stellenbosch University (SU). They even attempted to shut down Cape Town International airport.


Map showing cities across South Africa where universities were entirely shut down by Fees Must Fall protests. Media Credit: Kim Bui and Reported.Ly

Nearly a year later, students continue to protest and demand more than free education. They endure despite widespread suppression of protests, through expulsions and trumped-up charges, as well as assaults and property damage from confrontations with security forces – many of whom are private contractors.

South Africa’s university students have asked the critical question that underlies all student-led and education-focused protests, and which Californians must also ask ourselves: How far must we go?

Must we focus on the more achievable, shorter-term project of transforming our schools?

Or, must we focus on the more ambitious, longer-term project of remaking our societies?

The Rhodes Must Fall collective (RMF), which is overwhelmingly led by marginalized, Black university students, has demanded more than institutional “transformation.” Instead, they have consistently demanded total “decolonization”: a radical abolition and re-imagination of entire social structures.

RMF has refused shallow reforms to fundamentally colonial, Eurocentric, and anti-Black institutions. They have repeatedly called out universities’ corporate lip-service and empty promises over 20 years of negligible change. They have highlighted the connections of universities to military-industrial complexes, and attacked the way that universities and Global North firms remain dependent upon the exploitation of Black labor.

RMF’s radical demands and their strategy of aiming beyond academia has led the way in raising consciousness about South Africa’s and other post-colonies’ negligible social and economic transformations. By addressing neoliberalization and corporatization of universities in a frame of colonial violence against Black and LGBTQ bodies, students have raised larger questions of neoliberal governance by white-owned, global capital.

RMF has consistently alleged that, in the current neocolonial/neoliberal system, wealthy, elected, multi-racial elites have simply replaced the former, unelected, all-white, apartheid-era elites. Both pre- and post-apartheid governments are beholden to white-owned, global capital. Because of, and not in spite of, such radical, ambitious claims, RMF inspired South African students to demand more, protest longer, include more stakeholders, and ultimately achieve more of their goals.

In doing so, they have highlighted the global predicament of neoliberalism and so-called post-colonialism, and they have significantly changed the conversations around not only education, but also around public services, racism, democracy, and social movements. Other university students, like those in CA and across the U.S., have much to learn from RMF.

From “Rhodes Must Fall” to “Fees Must Fall” to “The Death of a Dream”.

How, and how much, has RMF succeeded? While students have indisputably changed the conversation and won short-term victories, more than a year of direct actions, demonstrations, and occupations have endured increasing suppression.

By the time of October’s Fees Must Fall, most of South Africa’s universities had been primed by RMF for larger protests that would move beyond the confines of the universities and into the communities and towns around them. By 2015, South African students were exasperated by slow and exploitative university bureaucracies, as well as by elected but unresponsive Student Representative Councils (SRCs).

RMF formed in 2015 March when marginalized students led protests with a clear, immediate demand: removal of a statue to Cecil Rhodes from the center of UCT’s campus. RMF’s success with the statue, and their proudly radical and transgressive tactics, inspired and directly contributed to a renewal of other student protest groups.

In April, Open Stellenbosch (OS) emerged at the even more unequal and segregated Stellenbosch University (SU), located near Cape Town in Stellenbosch – the historic “cradle of apartheid”. OS demanded major reforms to actually address endemic institutional racism, beginning with all classes being available in English.

In July, the Marikana Commission Report exonerated all government officials, exacerbating national tensions. In August, as the school year resumed, RMF seized the moment and escalated dramatically through evocative demonstrations about persistent anti-Blackness, evidenced by the Marikana Massacre.

Rhodes Must Fall protesters block an entrance at UCT with a larger banner with a stylized image of one of the murdered Marikana miners and strike leaders, Mgcineni ‘Mambush’ Noki, reading “Sharpeville. Never Again. Marikana. Again.” Media Credit: Eyewitness News and Rhodes Must Fall

RMF highlighted negligible gains for Black students and South Africans with a transgressive campaign of graffiti- and performance art-based demonstrations that demanded students, administrators, and community members all “Remember Marikana,” largely by comparing it to the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre. Furthermore, RMF highlighted universities’ involvement, through board seats and investments, with Global North firms that remain dependent upon overwhelmingly Black labor for dangerous, underpaid, and degrading forms of labor – like mining.

Backlash increased against students who supposedly should have been satisfied by the removal of UCT’s Rhodes Statue, and whose protests were increasingly disrupting business as usual. As graffiti and other forms of transgression increased, outspoken faculty began dismissing as “ideological essentialising” RMF’s “attacks on liberalism”.

Many white faculty and students refused to consider how or why students were becoming increasingly transgressive when faced with increasing oppression. RMF’s unashamedly pro-Black attacks on UCT’s anti-Blackness transgressed established norms of respectable, slow, and ineffective bureaucracy-based change, which the most marginalized students were no longer accepting.

Between August and October, drawing on the success and controversy of RMF and OS, many other universities and students increased their protests. Because of RMF, critiques increasingly became about anti-Blackness, White Supremacy, Eurocentrism, abolition, decolonization, and radical change, instead of the incremental change espoused by political parties.

With RMF and OS leading the way, university students educated the public on social systems of exploitation and oppression, both online through widely-circulated documentaries and opinions, as well as in the streets. Performative, transgressive, and ostensibly radical tactics blazed a trail by aggressively denouncing the persistent Eurocentrism and anti-Blackness at ostensibly democratic and meritocratic institutions, like universities.

The targets of their protests included, but were not limited to:

  • Increasing privatization and exclusivity of universities, especially the wealth and power of elite populations within academia;
  • White Supremacy and cultural hegemony, manifested through universities’ Eurocentric epistemologies, methodologies, monuments, language policies, and hiring practices
  • Outsourcing of service jobs, disproportionately impacting Black and women laborers;
  • White-owned, global capitalist hegemony, dependent upon connections between universities and Global North extractive, security, and financial firms;
  • The marginalization of intersectionality, Black Feminism, and LGBTQ-identified people and women within universities and historical social movements

By October 2015, when many universities announced ~10% tuition increases, the kindling for a wildfire of social movements had been laid by RMF; the exorbitant increase was the spark for the fire. Over 2 weeks of massive, militant, occupation- and demonstration-based protests forced President Zuma and Higher Education Minister Nzimande to cancel planned increases.

Despite some premature claims that “Fees Have Fallen,” RMF students and laborers continued to demand free and decolonized education, as well as to End Outsourcing. From November through December, South African students and laborers continued demonstrating, despite heavy police violence.

After weeks of ongoing disruptions, including major property damage and clashes with police, UCT finally announced intentions to insource laborers, with negotiations beginning in November. SU also announced intentions for all-English language policies. Students at UCT and SU maintained pressure to demand deeper changes, while elsewhere students, laborers, families, politicians, and the media began to reflect on the protests.

The temporary tuition freeze was achieved largely thanks to RMF’s ambitious, abolitionist “must fall” rhetoric, which helped mobilize far more people than only university students. Both students and the authorities recognized the success of these tactics as a pivotal moment.

Unfortunately, as of mid-2016, things look grim. Impressive short-term victories may never become permanent, deep, structural changes. While negotiations regarding insourcing continued from November onward, OS pointed out that “the question naturally arises of what areas of the budget will be affected in making the books balance” following the tuition freeze.

OS and RMF continued to demand that universities lead society in ambitious resistance to capitalism, rather than giving in to privatization. In 2016 February, RMF held the Shackville protest to highlight housing insecurity and the ongoing shanties in which many South Africans still live. Unfortunately, police and private security destroyed Shackville. In the tumult, a university truck was set ablaze.

Subsequently, UCT de facto expelled suspected students who were critical members of RMF, by charging them and putting them on trial. They were found guilty, and ordered to pay legal and other fees to the university. Simultaneously, conflict arose within RMF between its more intersectional/Black Feminist members, and its more masculinist, heteronormative members. One key RMF man assaulted an LGBTQ protester, leading to breakdowns of the collective’s effectiveness.

Highly visible graffiti at the UCT sports field reads “#UCTIsAntiBlack.” Media Credit: Rhodes Must Fall

The final, most visible protest of the 2015-16 academic year was titled “The Death of a Dream,”  where students broadcast UCT’s expulsion of student protest leaders and delays on insourcing. The students message remains clear and brutal: UCT is anti-Black, a site of colonization, and somewhere that students seeking liberation should avoid.

How did South Africa’s university students go so far?

They knew they needed to go beyond academia and to focus on more than only curricula, enrollment, tuition, or other education-specific institutional processes. One critical RMF member, who spoke to me in 2015 August during the Remember Marikana campaign, argued the following: “If you don’t frame the struggle overall as first and foremost total decolonization, you’re just setting yourself up for another battle after whatever you fight in the university alone.”

One of the most effective strategies of RMF has been their connection of the simultaneous anti-Blackness of: the UK-based extractive firm LonMin and the Marikana Massacre; Global North firms’ connections with universities and political elites; and neoliberalism’s ubiquitous outsourcing of impoverished laborers.

RMF connected with students, their families, and the overwhelmingly Black, non-academic laborers at UCT – while clashing with the overwhelmingly white and/or European-educated professors, who insisted their demands were too radical. Their approach to coalition-building generated broad and consistent sympathy outside of universities, as well as pressure within universities.

By refusing further engagement with consistently ineffective bureaucracies, and by circumventing questionable labor unions[1] now beholden to white-owned, global capital, RMF’s university students created an environment more conducive to a coalition against a common threat of neoliberalism’s ubiquitous and inevitable anti-Blackness. Without RMF’s consistent, transgressive, and highly visible rejections of UCT’s empty promises, Fees Must Fall may have never occurred.

Analyzing RMF’s demands for “decolonization” versus OS’s initial demands for “transformation” reveals an ideological and discursive split between the two groups, which yielded different strategies and tactics, and reflected the different needs of students at different universities.

UCT is situated within a major metropolitan center, entirely surrounded by majority Black townships. Compared to SU, UCT has a much more diverse student population, and a very different historical relationship to apartheid.

SU is more geographically isolated, an hour East of Cape Town, and surrounded by rolling hills and wineries, not townships. Historically, Stellenbosch and SU served as the intellectual home of apartheid and right-wing, Afrikaner White Supremacy. No less than four White Supremacist prime ministers (Hertzog, Malan, Verwoerd, and Vorster) and other top apartheid officials attended SU.

SU students of color face disturbing levels of intimidation. Entirely surrounded by histories, structures, and armed forces of Afrikanerdom, students who dare to speak up at SU are at a much greater risk of retaliation. In the early days of OS, at least one OS leader was directly threatened by SU faculty. Threats against “disrespectful” and “ungrateful” students leading OS increased proportional to the group’s activities, even though OS’s tactics tended to be much more subdued and respectable, compared to RMF.

OS and RMF could be put into an oppositional binary, such as “transformation v. decolonization,” “university v. society,” or “evolution v. revolution,” respectively. Indeed, there were initial tensions between the groups regarding radicalism and understanding of the extensiveness of neocolonialism and neoliberalism. OS maintained a hierarchical organization, with leaders, spokespeople, and white students allowed. RMF remained as structureless and leaderless a network as possible, and deliberately excluded white students from leadership circles, similar to Biko’s SASO under apartheid.

However, both movements’ short-term demands were more alike than not. Even though OS focused on a more achievable, specific goal of English language instruction, it did so while maintaining a critique of the persistence of apartheid culture and Eurocentrism. In fact, South African university students’ ability to find common ground and work together, while critiquing their radical goals and identity politics, is what makes South Africa’s university student-led protests so significant.

After months of RMF serving as the most transgressive voice, every student movement—beyond just those in the Western Cape—was demanding higher-quality, more-accessible education, humane labor practices, and university populations that were representative of, and responsive to, the rest of society.

Despite longer-term ideological and strategic differences between RMF, OS, and other key student groups, massive fee increases provided an opportunity for disparate groups to form a coherent short-term coalition. Armed with the abolitionist rhetoric of “must fall,” students nationwide were primed to lead protests with a clear short-term goal and a specific militant tactic: abolish fees by occupying and shutting down cities and universities.

Months later, fees remain prohibitively high, and several students have been expelled. It has been argued by disillusioned protesters that “UCT is winning.” Universities continue to expend vast sums on private security to quell students who they now perceive as dangerously powerful, when organized.

South Africa, CA, and the U.S. are more alike than not, despite differences.

The question facing South Africa could be easily asked in California: Where do we go from here? How far must we go? It seems obvious that backing down in either context will not stop further neoliberalization.

Some may insist we cannot compare “the other” of South Africa to the U.S. and California.

There remain significant disparities between states, cultures, and histories of colonialism.

However, despite the Great Recession, the failures of austerity, and the U.S.’s role in economic  catastrophe, nearly all universities now conform to U.S.-created neoliberal models. The hegemony of our country, including our educational systems’ privatization, has a global impact.

Most established universities now exploit as much labor as possible, while increasing tuition, and selectively reward tiny, elite populations. Management of profitability now takes priority over teaching, learning, and empowerment of students. Any past dreams of high-quality, low-cost, public education have been replaced by nightmares of neoliberalized, highly-stratified, for-profit, corporate models.

California and the U.S. were both sites of historical colonization, but were also states that came to drive colonialism. They arguably continue to drive neocolonialism. Like South Africa, we do not only face “corruption” of our politics, but face a system operating on the same foundation as its colonial predecessor: oppression and exploitation of the many for the profit of the few. “The many” still tend to be darker-skinned, while “the few” tend to be lighter-skinned and/or in service to white-owned, global capital.

Across South Africa, most of the population still lives in colonial-style townships. Rates of poverty, unemployment, inequality, and access to basic services, as well as racial disparities for these indicators, are roughly the same as pre-1994. In the post-colony, even a robust university does little to create a middle class.

It is true that on average, in California and the U.S., most students’ expected and lived material experiences are less bleak than in historically colonized regions of the globe. However, ideologically and operationally, the system in the U.S. differs only by a matter of degree, and shares the same foundations as that of South Africa. In the U.S., even an expansive network of universities and increasing rates of educational achievement fail to guarantee a certain quality of life for people of different racial, sexual/gender, and class identities.

Our policy-makers remain overwhelmingly men who embrace neoliberal capitalism, and do not reflect the demographics of the larger society. The military-industrial complex necessary for state security and surveillance apparatuses remains supported by universities’ physics, robotics, and engineering departments. Our legally color blind New Jim Crow frighteningly parallels the neocolonialism of post-apartheid South Africa, where anti-Blackness remains a fundamental part of society, and yet is simultaneously declared to be impossible.

The disparities between white and non-white residents and university students in both the U.S. and in South Africa today is nearly as bad as in the past. The persistent racism of the U.S. is further evidenced in negligibly-changed white v. Black rates of all of the following: poverty; income; housing access; home ownership; health issues; general homicide rates; homicide by police; general police brutality; incarceration; legislative representation and judicial appointments; (un)employment; youth unemployment; tertiary degree attainment; and student loan debt.

The most illustrative similarities between both states are their similar historical systems of apartheid: state-sanctioned, violently-enforced, anti-Black segregation. Both states also share histories of police militarization, alongside condoning widespread use of lethal force by police and by private gun owners. Consequently, both states effectively perpetuate disparities between white and non-white peoples’ experience of state and non-state violence, even years after ostensibly liberating political change.

For one example, in South Africa, an RMF student’s car was set on fire immediately after the climax of Fees Must Fall. In the U.S., two prominent anti-police brutality activists in Missouri — Deandre Joshua in 2014, and Darren Seals in 2016 — were both murdered by being shot and placed inside a burning vehicle. In the U.S., the protests by Black Lives Matter groups face heightened surveillance and visibly militarized police responses. In South Africa, increasing reliance on private security has resulted not only in property damage for universities, but in hospitalizations for students, alongside allegations of police sexually assaulting student protesters. In both cases, protesters are terrorized by both state and non-state actors, whose violence against protesters is considered acceptable.

On one hand, the U.S.’s disproportionately high levels of homicides of people of color, both by police and otherwise, far exceeds that of South Africa. On the other hand, the slow violence of absolute poverty in South Africa all but guarantees a lifetime of third-class citizenship, subordination to the power of white-owned, global capital, and disproportionately high levels of overall crime. In both cases, darker-skinned people face an omnipresent threat of violence and crime of various forms, while remaining second- or third-class citizens in a “color blind” state.

In another lens, the 2012 Marikana Massacre saw police “armed only with automatic weapons and loaded with sharp ammunition” shoot and then hunt down and further slaughter fleeing wildcat strikers. Marikana’s similarity to the apartheid-era, 1960 Sharpeville Massacre was immediately recognized by most South Africans. In the U.S., however, many remain reluctant to recognize some persistent similarities between police brutality now and in the past. However, there has been no recent massacre of unarmed students or protesters in the U.S., analogous to Kent State or Jackson State.

Ultimately, in both South Africa and the U.S., the darker one’s skin is, the more painful and violent one’s existence will likely be. This is especially true for those who protest. This is because, in both states, the system has been founded on anti-Blackness, which the state continues to fail to address.

In tertiary education, similar white and non-white disparities are undeniable, evidenced by persistent enrollment, retention, and graduation gaps. Students from historically colonized communities suffer especially as tuition increases exclude more and more people. Precarious “financial aid” schemes only tentatively allow lower-income students to study, often with unforgivable debt.

White men still account for most senior staff, academic, and faculty positions in the UC system, across the U.S., and in South Africa. These racial disparities exist alongside universities’ increasing reliance on “contingent” instructors who are paid poverty wages, further degrading quality of instruction. Simultaneously, the laborers keeping universities running are overwhelmingly people of color, and are often outsourced to disreputable firms with histories of severe labor abuses.

Can California’s university students demand such ambitious abolition?

Because of so many similarities in both universities and societies, university students protesting in California or elsewhere in the U.S. could learn from the successes and obstacles of protesters in South Africa, who have achieved greater success through demands that, because of their radicalism, have created broader coalitions capable of more militant protests.

Like South Africa, California’s protests also won short-term results, but did not roll-back fees, transform the university, or restructure society. In 2013-14, UC student-led protests against 5 years of 5%-per-year tuition increases partly contributed to a 2-year partial tuition freeze, followed by promises of “predictable” tuition increases. There was no freeze for UC’s “systemwide student services fee” and “Professional Degree Supplemental Tuition” (PDST) whose increases would be 20%-30% over the course of five years.

However, unlike South Africa, or Chile, India, Hong Kong, and elsewhere, there have been relatively few recent, widespread, student-led, militant occupations here in California. In 2015 March at UC, Santa Cruz, six students blocked the main highway between San Francisco and Santa Cruz, resulting in their incarceration and effective expulsion. In 2015 May, around fifty students who were overwhelmingly made up of women of color, occupied the UC, Santa Barbara Chancellor’s office to demand immediate sexual violence reforms.

The Million Student March in 2015 November marked widespread demonstrations and clear student demands for a living wage, cancellation of student debt, and free higher education, with significant turnout at UC campuses. However, the demonstration explicitly avoided any militant action, even though the students had the numbers for it.

UC, Berkeley protesters march with a sign reading “#JusticeForUCWorkers” as well as a caricature of Chancellor Dirks, captioned “Dirks is a Racist.” Media Credit: Kevin Cheung / Staff / Daily Cal

In 2015 November, at an annual Students of Color Conference, students protested UC outsourcing and labor exploitation. Throughout 2015-16 at UC, Berkeley, the Student Labor Committee led protests against outsourcing, including the transgressive “Dirks is a Racist” allegations against Berkeley’s then-Chancellor. A brief fossil fuel divestment sit-in occurred at UC, Berkeley, too.

At UC, Davis in early 2016, following the anti-racist Black Under Attack protests, students occupied administrators’ offices to demand the university “Fire Katehi”, which at least partly contributed to that that Chancellor’s resignation. Berkeley’s Chancellor, too, has now recently announced their resignation.

The “Must Fall” demand has spread beyond South Africa, at least to Oxford and Harvard. In 2015 November, University of Missouri President Wolfe fell, following anti-racist protests with extra power through student coalitions with student athletes of color. UC Chancellors Katehi and Dirks have fallen, albeit with different terminology employed in demanding their removal.

However, demands to abolish specific Chancellors are only effective in the short-term, if not accompanied by demands for long-term restructuring of the systems. Any Chancellor, even one vetted by students, will become compromised the moment they assume a position so prone to corruption, and so beholden to the forces of global capital.

Unlike South Africa, abolitionist rhetorics like “decolonization,” or ambitious demands to totally overhaul educational governance, have been largely invisible in California. Instead, the trend has been towards more respectable, institutionally-sanctioned approaches: demonstrations without occupations, or relying on elected student government to pursue incremental reforms.

Besides the few occupations noted above, there has been little statewide coordination of widespread student militancy, nor has there been a single campus that has inspired protests across and beyond academia. Demands for free education or tuition abolition have largely failed to address larger political, economic, and cultural systems, or to address the U.S.’s widespread resistance to public services. Even a demand as concise as “Education, not Incarceration,” when made to a corrupt government without significant support of people in the streets, will be ignored.

Despite this, the official, elected, statewide UC Student Association (UCSA) has run non-structural campaigns year after year to highlight serious issues with the UC. Their well-intentioned work has somewhat increased awareness of the worst parts of the UC’s privatization, but has only slightly slowed it. UCSA, and other elected student governments, have rarely organized effective, widespread demonstrations.

There is no statewide, militant, direct-action coordinating body for Californian students. The vast majority of student militancy to date has been conducted by marginalized students, who act outside of official university groups, receive minimal support, and usually face significant backlash. Only recently have attacks on specific top-level officials, or for abolishing certain processes, gained wider support and yielded success for students.

There are currently three separate divestment campaigns occurring at the UC, with no common strategy amongst them. The most infamous, the pro-Palestinean BDS movement, faces intense opposition on most campuses. Fossil fuel divestment, which forced the UC to sell its coal and oil sands investments in mid 2015, has no connection with BDS divestment movements. Neither does the Black Student Union (BSU) / Afrikan Black Coalition (ABC) campaign that forced the UC to divest from private prisons shares in late 2015.

ABC now seeks UC divestment from $425m in Wells Fargo holdings. Fossil Free UC continues building statewide support for divestment from all fossil fuels. BDS continues fighting the staggering power of the U.S.’s pro-Israel, anti-Arab military-industrial complex All three groups have made significant progress on their own in raising awareness of racist, capitalist violence.

Despite a common tactic, and significant overlap in their goals of justice and liberation for those oppressed by white-owned, global capital, these three groups remain disconnected from one another. What could they accomplish if they coordinated a common, mass divestment, sustainable investment campaign to totally restructure the UC’s finances?

There is much more that can and must be done to stop a totally privatized University of California. There is growing awareness of the failure of a college degree to secure an acceptable quality of life in the U.S. for graduates – especially graduates of color. There is growing awareness of structural, institutional, financial, and sexual violence against both students and laborers.

Much like how apparently dissimilar groups coalesced together under a common cause in South Africa, the same can, and indeed must, happen in California. The UC relies on hundreds of thousands of laborers, many of whom are subcontracted to brutally exploitative private firms. Alliances between students and laborers seem an as-yet-unrealized necessary component.

What “Must Fall” in California?

Tuition and student loan debt remain at unprecedented levels, and increase annually. Worldwide, neoliberal populists are threatening even more aggressive forms of capitalism, nationalism, sexism, and racism. In deciding next steps, we must consider what those in power, who have much to lose, may now be asking out of fear: What “Must Fall” here?

There are seeds of discontent and conscientization in California now, that students could cultivate together into widespread, coalition-based protests and movements for system-wide restructuring. 2014-2016 have seen significant escalations, and 2016 is a significant anniversary of many past protests.

In South Africa, it has been 4 years since Marikana and 40 years since Soweto. Given the prevalence of mass incarceration and state-sanctioned violence in the U.S., the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison Uprising seems relevant.

It has been thirty years since the UC’s 1986 Shantytown Protests. It has been eight years since California began its most recent massive tuition increases, and since ineffective protests began at the UC. It marks only the third year of former DHS Secretary Napolitano’s tenure as President of the UC. Now seems as good a time as any to demand that Napolitano must fall.

Must we topple tuition and student fees that perpetuate an exclusive, classist, racist university that fails to create an educated labor force or a middle class, or to meaningfully move society forward? Should we go farther, and abolish politicians and government bodies forcing universities to privatize? In California, should we demand “Tuition Must Fall” or “Racism Must Fall”?

Should we demand “Fire Napolitano,” or that the “UC Regents Must Fall”? Why not demand that capitalism or imperialism must fall, so long as we can communicate that in a way that brings together many different stakeholders and achieves at least short-term successes? Students must assert an abolitionist demand that sounds and seems impossible. Aiming for anything less will likely only yield more disconnected protests that at best only slow the privatization of education.

At the same time, students must issue demands in a way that can rally as many marginalized people as possible together. Students must not unite by erasing important differences, a la Professor Ananya Roy’s contentious 2011 claim that “We are all students of color now.”

If abolition frameworks can become central to California’s students, they must come from the most marginalized university populations. As evidenced by incredibly robust and comprehensive policy proposals recently released by Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives, those who are the most oppressed are those who are most knowledgeable about the systemic violence that must be abolished.

Much how students at UCT and SU faced different levels of intimidation and had different resources available, students as CSU Long Beach, UC, Davis, and San Francisco City College represent diverse needs within the overall frame of neoliberal exploitation.

As in South Africa, where the most marginalized students were those able to effectively imagine alternatives and to facilitate protests, California’s marginalized students’ demands must be supported by other students. Students of greater relative privilege must not assume that they may override the demands and needs of those suffering even more. As in South Africa and elsewhere, leadership by the marginalized is likely the best hope for all to resist the terrors of neoliberalism.


This intervention is part of Abolition’s first issue.

About the author: Alexandre Publia (pseudonym) studied international relations, with a focus on civil disobedience and social change post-9/11. Their Master’s and Bachelor’s are both from public West Coast U.S. universities. Their research and passion is the achievement of human rights for all peoples – no exceptions.



[1] See also: