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Violence and social cleavages in the 2015 /16 Fees Must Fall movement: A case study of Wits University, South Africa

In this thesis, I present an intersectional analysis of the Black students’ experiences of different dynamics of violence during the Fees Must Fall (FMF) movement in 2015/16 academic years. The overarching aim is to explore the various outcomes of interactions between the social phenomenon of violence and the intersectionality of the social cleavages of the students during FMF. I do this by exploring the repressive violence of the state, symbolic violence of the university authorities and the violence from within the movement between students. The intersectionality theory enables me to explore how the intersectional social cleavages of race, gender, citizenship and the different dimensions of violence illuminate the meanings of these intersectional social identities in moments of solidarity and conflicts. Violence makes intersectional social cleavages apparent, resulting in different alliances and tensions over time. Varied meanings are attached to the changing relations within the movement, and the different forms of violence shape and re-shape the intersectional social identities. The argument about violence is that it does not travel in a single direction, nor is it one-dimensional. Its fluidity means it constantly changes shape, size and direction and is never the monopoly of one group. Although temporarily, violence can be usurped from the normally dominant by the marginalized.

The scaffolding I use for the self-contained empirical chapters comprises the three cleavages. Firstly, I provide a detailed chronological narrative of the movement, showing how it rose, evolved and declined. This is the foundation for the three empirical chapters. In the first empirical chapter on race, I outline the deep racial divisions structured by the hierarchies and practices of the institution, the state and attitudes between White and Black students, ranging from passive to hostile. In the analysis chapter, it comes clear that the mobilisation of students using race as an organizing principle did not sustain the solidarities because race is not homogenous. Blackness, for example, has an array of intersections of identity within it. These shape and transform one’s experience of being black as well as their citizenship and gender.

In the second on gender, I trace the dynamics of gender shifts from outright exclusion to negotiated or contested inclusion. I also link the various confrontations and protest violence to concrete incidents and illustrate how these played out over time. The chapter also contextualises how the feminist struggle opened up new repertoires and new terrains of contestation. Of particular note is that some of the Black women, despite being foreigners, ended up participating in counter violent acts to contest their exclusion. Black women challenged their male counterpart protestors and disrupted the latter’s privileges of patriarchy. Part of this transition from outright exclusion at the onset to a negotiated and contested inclusion was negotiated through the appropriation of a sjambok, a whip associated with male dominance and violence. Black women’s acts of resistance and pushback presents an analytical account of how feminism was mobilised to unify women of different sexual orientations and accommodate e their different struggles as marginalised gender groupings dominated by patriarchy, including marginalised foreign females.

The final empirical chapter on citizenship has two emerging themes. First, I explore a group of feminists who experienced and fought against male domination and aligned themselves with Pan-Africanism, thereby spurning exclusionary nationalist citizenship. The second theme relates to an exploration of how violence sharpened the experiences of exclusionary national citizenship, and I show the gaps and divisions between national and continental African students. What emerges from the experiences of feminists is that the deeper the gender and racial exclusion experienced by radical feminists, for example, the greater their chance to lean towards non-exclusionary citizenship.

Although the three empirical chapters on race, gender and citizenship are self-contained, they reveal an intersectional configuration of these social cleavages. For example, the intersections of race and gender showed a White woman at the apex of the hierarchy and a Black foreign woman at the lowest tier of the hierarchy. This captures the different set of experiences of blackness. Such intersectionality shows that the foreign Black woman’s agency during incidents of violence is not only compromised by gender but also weakened by her citizenship, which complicates her participation for fear of deportation. White foreign males could equally be deported, but evidence shows that they had the advantage of masculinity and patriarchy over foreign black women. A Black South African woman’s main concern was to disrupt patriarchal dominance. The drive to assert her agency would have been successful had that been achieved. However, a foreign woman would still need to confront her foreignness. The South African Black feminist has the choice to engage in radical feminism. Some foreign feminists’ only option is to explore standpoint feminism, which is anti-violence or anti-militancy, resulting in them being another target of victimisation or exclusion by radical feminists. Blackness is a different struggle for various blacks, and violence and intersectionality opened up the spaces from which I drew the meanings of diverse experiences and actors.

I achieved all this using participant-centred data collection methods wherein all interview sessions became conversations which empowered participants to be as expressive as possible. During in-depth interviews, I requested all participants to imagine that I had fallen blind and deaf during the FMF protests and had neither seen nor heard anything. This imagined positionality gave the participants a feeling of ownership and control of the conversation. The blind man-deaf man metaphor became an excellent icebreaker that also presented participants with an opportunity to be true and natural in their recounts of FMF events. In this study, I assumed the title of ‘brother’ that participants assigned me and which I fitted due to age and sex. This further enhanced rapport with and trust of participants. I show how they embraced my study as a platform to speak out and as another avenue of fighting their struggle. For the same reason, some males preferred to address me as bafo, which means brother or bhuti omkhulu, or bhuti omdala which means big brother and elder brother respectively.

Key words: violence, social cleavages, race, gender, nationality, patriarchy, black feminists, black queer activists, fallists.

Full Name
Dr Alois Sibaningi Baleni Sibanda