Student power in twenty-first century Africa: The character and role of student organising

Student power in twenty-first century Africa: The character and role of student organising

In March 2015, a wave of student protests, starting at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, made global news headlines, as sit-ins, demonstrations, and a string of meetings were undertaken in an effort to ‘decolonise’ the university. This was exemplified by the demand for, and eventually accession to, the removal of the statue of colonial figure Cecil John Rhodes. Additionally, matters concerning institutional culture and the Africanisation of academic staff and curriculum were to receive reinvigorated attention. In this chapter of a book titled Student Politics and Protests, editor Rachel Brooks examines how the character and role of this movement, and the wave of activism it inspired, can best be understood in the context of 21st century Africa.

The influence of the #RhodesMustFall movement, as it came to be known via social media, did not stop with the removal of the statue. It became an inspiration to students across other South African universities, with questions raised on matters of colonial culture including the use of Afrikaans as an official language. This scaling up of protest led to the Ministry of Higher Education and Training inviting all higher education stakeholders to a summit which issued the Durban Statement on Transformation in Higher Education in October 2015. While institutional culture remained on the agenda, three other main focal points were agreed upon: higher education funding, student fees, and financial aid for students. Yet still the movement grew, becoming known more widely as #FeesMustFall. Ten days after the summit, amid campus shut-downs and protests at the gates of parliament, the government committed to a 0% increase in fees and additional subsidies to public universities.

In light of this stunning example of student influence, the purpose of this chapter is to provide a systematic overview of the emerging character and role of representative student organisations in national and higher education politics in a selection of African countries: Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe. The author pursues this task in three ways: historically, conceptually and empirically, together providing a broad overview of contemporary trends in African student politics. The chapter also presents a classification of national student organisations, which was first applied to European and later to international student organisations, and analyses the results of a survey among higher education experts regarding the characteristics of African student organisations.

In summary, the author argues that student politics and influence in twenty-first century Africa can best be understood in terms of four broad structural factors.  


  • The impact of the political liberalisation and the re-institution of multi-party politics in the 1990s and 2000s have left an important imprint on student politics in Africa. Political parties exhibit the highest influence on student politics, often establishing or infiltrating student associations to capitalise on their mobilisation capacities. This interference can be detrimental, causing division and a sense of lost legitimacy.

  • Economic growth throughout Africa has brought about expansion of privatised, technical, vocational and professional higher education institutions. This diversification of the higher education sector, together with a diversification of the student body, has led to a different ‘public ethos’ from the old public universities, leading to student representative associations, and their formal rights in governance of institutions, being less political and more consultative.

  • Widespread neoliberal reforms to higher education have changed the relationship between institutions, students, and states. As states have been unable or unwilling to increase spending, public institutions have had to corporatise to compete in more marketised higher education sectors. This has led to costs being passed down to students themselves, resulting in movements such as #FeesMustFall in South Africa joining a global wave of student protests against tuition fees in the form of an internet age student movement.

  • Conservative cultural values conflate students as ‘pupils’, attributing to them limited agency to constructively and critically influence their educational experience, and viewing them as ‘troublemakers’ who need to be disciplined when they attempt to do so. Conversely, student representatives themselves have not always managed to escape the lures of political patronage systems. Yet for students to have real influence toward positive change, this relationship must be amended to one of reciprocity, with a sense of shared responsibilities and collective commitments to mutually agreed goals. Student leaders also need to be critical and principled; successful student organising must emphasise the significance of claiming, and sustaining, a genuine moral high ground.

  1. How good is this research?

    Assessing the quality of research can be a tricky business. This blog from our editor offers some tools and tips.