Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

The Phenomenology of Rhodes Must Fall: Student Activism and the Experience of Alienation at the University of Cape Town

Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

The Phenomenology of Rhodes Must Fall: Student Activism and the Experience of Alienation at the University of Cape Town

Article excerpt


Social movements often face the danger of becoming the very thing they are fighting against. This tension is evident within the student movement, Rhodes Must Fall, at the University of Cape Town. This dialectic is explored through the notion of 'alienation' as a concept of social philosophy. I argue that while the movement emerges from the experience of alienation, certain behaviours internal to the movement can also proceed to cause alienation. The lesson to be learnt from this contradiction is that we are all simultaneously oppressors and oppressed. From this emerges a positive understanding of alienation, as the experience of alienation is not only a negative one. One such positive lesson in this case is the alteration of our understandings of ourselves and others toward an all-inclusive liberation agenda. Failure to heed this could see the transformation potential of such movements like Rhodes Must Fall hijacked by hypocrisy.

1. Introduction

In 2015, South Africa was engulfed by a wave of student protests. At the crest of this wave, student activism rode triumphantly. This activism has ushered into an unstable socio-political landscape various movements such as Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) and Fees Must Fall (FMF), which among other things, have forcefully asserted the importance of concrete transformation and decolonisation in South African universities. This essay uses one possible understanding of the concept of alienation to explain the genesis of the movement, as well as the dialectic of its development through internal divisions.

Within the context of student activism, alienation as a tool in social philosophy, "... can be used to diagnose social pathologies--that is, deficiencies in the social conditions of individual self-realisation" (Jaeggi 2014: xxii). The task at hand is a critical engagement with the RMF movement--its ambitions, rhetoric and critics through the lens of alienation. This is precisely because RMF has increased our attention (and rightfully so) to the predicament of institutional racism as one of the social pathologies plaguing contemporary South Africa.

This analysis involves an engagement with three main authors--Rahel Jaeggi, G W F Hegel and Achille Mbembe. In addition, it is guided by two key questions: (a) In what ways can we describe the genesis of a movement like RMF through the idea of alienation? (b) What commentary can we subsequently make of its liberation attempts which seek to escape the predicament of alienation through the curative endeavour of activism? In engaging with these authors, I aim to defend three claims: (a) the RMF movement can be seen as the consequence of alienation because 'relations of appropriation' within the 'role of the student' are disturbed by a reality of institutional racism; (b) building on this, I compare RMF to the Consciousness in Hegel prior to the life and death struggle. In dealing with its alienation, the RMF consciousness proceeds to impose itself too strongly upon the world and others. Although it can be said to achieve a degree of subjectivity, this is not complete subjecthood as it consistently seeks recognition without wanting to grant it to others. Furthermore, I make the claim that in imposing subjectivity too strongly, some behaviours within the movement proceed in dialectical fashion to become the very thing it is fighting against. That is, while alienation births the movement, it can also proceed to be an alienating force. I illustrate this point in three ways: alienation of black students, self-alienation, and alienation of white students; (c) alienation has a positive dimension that is rarely acknowledged. Confronted with the negativity of the experience of alienation, the RMF consciousness is presented with an opportunity for self-discovery. It is important to recognise this positive dimension of alienation (Gavin 2012). The idea of a positive thesis of alienation (that is, progress through struggle) is a lesson borrowed from the dialectical development presented in Hegel's Phenomenology. …

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