Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni
University of South Africa3, Pretoria, South Africa


The university in South Africa became a key site of struggles in 2015. Faculty and university leadership as well as the government were taken by surprise as students joined the ‘insurgent citizens (Brown, 2015)’, demanding immediate decolonization of the university. What began as Rhodes Must Fall Movement (RMF) targeting Cecil John Rhodes’s statue at the University of Cape Town quickly expanded into broader demands for cognitive justice; change of curriculum; de-commissioning of offensive colonial/apartheid symbols; right to free, quality and relevant education; cultural freedom; and overall change of the very idea of the university from its western pedigree (‘university in Africa’) to ‘African university’. This article examines why the university in South Africa has become a site of struggles while at the same time making sense of the current student protests. At one level, the article locates and theorizes RMF within a broader context of the crisis of Euro-North American-centric civilization and modernity as well as African history of protest, which spans three phases of anti-colonial protests of 1950s and 1960s; anti-austerity and limits of reform protests of 1980s and 1990s; and the current ‘Africa Uprisings (Branch & Mampilly, 2015)’. At another level, the article historicises and theorises RMF movements in the context of the highly contested and evolving idea of South Africa mediated by the ‘paradigm of difference’ and practices of ‘impossibility of co-presence’ (Mudimbe, 1988). Broadly, the article provides a systematic theoretical and historical framing as well as interpretation of the terrain within which deeper meaning of the current student movements could be made.

Keywords: idea of South Africa, impossibility of co-presence, paradigm of difference, university in Africa, African university, Rhodes Must Fall, protest, political society.