In April 2015, students at the University of Cape Town in South Africa cheered as the statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes was removed from campus. A few months later, Yale students and community members gathered on Cross Campus in the chilly November temperatures for a March of Resilience that called for a better campus racial climate.
On Monday evening, a “Students in Revolt” panel organized by the Yale Association for African Peace and Development sought to understand and compare these two student movements. The Black Student Alliance at Yale helped organize the event, which featured panelists including Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, history professor Daniel Magaziner, as well as five student activists from both the University of Cape Town and Yale. Moderated by Thuto Thipe GRD ’21, the panel explored the causation, method and intellectual theory behind student movements before roughly 70 attendees who packed into a first-floor room in the Afro-American Cultural Center.
“Students are often a key force in political movements that bring about change, and as African students in America, both movements — here at Yale and at the University of Cape Town — were dear to us. It was essential to ensure that our voices were heard here to create a more inclusive environment, and it was also necessary [for us] to stand with our brothers and sisters back home,” said Nana Akowuah ’18, president of YAAPD. “There weren’t that many talks that were addressing these issues, so we said, ‘Why not have a talk where we bring in student activists from both South Africa and Yale?’”
Holloway, who specializes in post-emancipation U.S. history, gave the audience a short account of student protests in the United States. Student activism typically takes place in two ways, he said, either through the radical approach or the institutional approach. Whereas student protesters in San Francisco State University tended to be more radical in the 1960s and ’70s, Yale students in the same period worked with the administration to found the Af-Am House and open Yale’s doors to more students of color. Holloway added that across elite educational institutions whose students generally took a more institutional approach, the number of black students increased dramatically during that period.
Still, university administrators nationwide quickly discovered that it was one thing to open the doors through admissions and another to truly cultivate and nurture that diverse population of students, Holloway said.
“Universities will all talk about diversity. I’m absolutely all for it, but that’s just the beginning of the conversation. We need to be engaging all of our students with all the ideas that they bring with them,” Holloway said during the discussion. “Diversity shouldn’t be a satisfactory endpoint.”
Magaziner, an intellectual historian who focuses on South Africa, also compared contemporary student movements in South Africa with those that took place there in the 1960s and ’70s. An important question that student activists should ask, he said, is whether achieving specific goals as opposed to implementing fundamental transformations can be considered true victory.
Thipe then asked the three South African students — Shandukani Mulaudzi, a South African journalist completing her master’s degree at Columbia University; Kaeleboga Ramaru, an activist with the Rhodes Must Fall Movement who completed her degree in gender and transformation at the University of Cape Town and Nigel Patel, a third-year student at the University of Cape Town — as well as the two Yale students, Joy Shan ’15 and Lex Barlowe ’17, to describe their roles in student activist movements on their respective campuses.
Attendees, organizers and panelists interviewed all said the intersectionality of the student activists’ experiences was an important feature of the discussion.
Helinna Ayalew GRD ’14 said she was drawn to the event because she was interested in learning from these transatlantic conversations. She was grateful for the opportunity to hear South African student activists speak about their experiences and perspectives, she added.
“It’s really great to be able to bring together people who are in different geographical spaces but organizing around such similar issues,” Thipe said. “I think we got from the panel that the contexts are as similar as they are different. The differences are extraordinary, but there are some common themes that students seem to be bringing up in different contexts. It’s wonderful to be able to talk and to learn from each other.”
The most important thing when it comes to activism, Akowuah said, is finding one’s place and being careful not to take the spotlight from other people when it’s their turn.
Mulaudzi said she hopes more people will read up on South Africa’s student movements after the discussion. The shared oppression is a common thread that binds issues here with those in South Africa.
“I’m hoping that whatever [the panelists] said resonated with the students here so that they can figure out what it is that ultimately they want to fight for and they would like to gain from protesting and fighting,” Mulaudzi said.
The YAAPD hosts the annual Sankofa54: African Youth Empowerment Conference each spring.