Students across various universities in New York, as well as workers in the city, are set to march to the South African consulate on Wednesday to hand over a letter to the South African ambassador. Already, organisers say, a decolonisation movement is beginning to take root in New York universities.
Kayum Ahmed is a PhD student completing his degree in international and comparative education at Columbia University in New York.
Ahmed, who is also the South African Human Rights Commission’s former chief executive officer, says that the idea for a solidarity march came from a group of South Africans studying at various universities in New York.
“As fellow students we certainly feel the pain of student protesters in South Africa and at the same time recognise that the struggle to decolonise education in South Africa is of course not just a South African struggle, but a struggle that is shared by students in the United States and across the world,” Ahmed told the Mail & Guardian.
Already, the student senate at the Teachers College – the first and largest graduate school of education in the US – has adopted a resolution to support the Fees Must Fall movement in South Africa. The resolution came in 2015 when Fees Must Fall protests first spread, and now students are rising to take action again.
The march to the SA consulate
Students and workers will march from Bryant Park to the South African consulate where they intend to handover a letter of demands to Mninwa Johannes Mahlangu, the South African ambassador to the US. The demands include that colonial symbols are removed from universities, that primary, secondary and tertiary education is paid for through wealth tax and that workers are treated with dignity and respect.
In South Africa, the response to the Fees Must Fall movement has been fragmented, with either support for or against the student demands for free education. How students have protested has also been criticised and defended, with concerns being raised about the completion of the academic year amid university shutdowns.
Discussion in the US around Fees Must Fall has been largely influenced, Ahmed says, by the perception that education is commodity. In South Africa, although education has a price, the Constitution states that everyone has the right to basic education and to “further education, which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible”.
“Student responses on this side of the world have been varied, primarily because education here is commodified and is seen as a commodity, whereas in South Africa education is characterised as a right,” Ahmed says.
“I think those distinctions between education as a commodity and education as a right has certainly shaped and framed the discourses around the decolonisation movement here in the United States.”
Decolonisation on the western front
In South Africa, students have defined decolonisation as the adoption of a curriculum that includes African writers and ideas, as well as a culture of learning that addresses racism and other forms of exclusion against black students in universities.
Decolonisation in the US is centred more closely along the legacy of colonialism in America, particulary on native Americans who still struggle against inequality as a result of historical wrongs that still need to be addressed.
“Decolonisation is framed in relation to the native Americans or indigenous Americans and the theft of land and resources associated with colonisation in the United States. But despite this, I do believe that the South African movement has in some ways inspired US students to take greater action,” Ahmed said.
“One is increasingly finding #decolonisethisspace or #decoloniseeducation appearing on campuses, particularly Columbia University, where I am based.”
The US protesters’ demands also include that police must be removed from universities. Although limited information has been published regarding the South African protests in the US, Ahmed said, students there have seen images and footage of private security and police responding to student protests.
“From where we’re standing, this is very reminicent in some ways of the protest movement that took place as part of the anti-apartheid movement. While we recognise that the two movements are significantly different, the claim echoed by the Freedom Charter – the idea that all doors of learning and culture must be opened – certainly continues to resonate very strongly with us here,” Ahmed said.
Applying pressure on the South African government
The protest aims to apply pressure on the South African government to listen to students and act. Organisers have notified the South African consulate that they will be arriving with a letter for the ambassador, but have yet to receive a response.
“We believe that by placing pressure on our government by drawing global attention to the challenges that students face, we will firstly offer solidarity or at least a modest form of solidarity with students in South Africa.
“Second, we hope that students in the US are able to draw inspiration from students in South Africa where a movement to decolonise the US education system is desperately needed in our view,” Ahmed said.