Home Institution

University of Oregon

Publication Date

Fall 2018

Program Name

South Africa: Social and Political Transformation


Twenty-four years into democracy, in a time marked by stark inequality and rising levels of political disillusionment, student activists are key players in the pursuit of a more just, more equitable, and more democratic South Africa. Using universities as spaces to contest, disrupt, and challenge the status quo, student activists challenge narratives of youth political apathy and act as agents of change, encouraging society to meet the goals established in the 1996 Constitution, the document enshrining the very promises they were born into believing would be their reality. Through mobilization and organizing, student actors boldly engage in questions of substantive equality and reveal the limits of South African democracy. Yet, while #FeesMustFall protests in 2015-2016 temporarily garnered international media awareness and scholarly recognition, prolonged attention to student activism is lacking in the field of democratization and youth are often popularly conceived as apathetic or disengaged from politics. This study aims to correct this epistemological oversight by focusing on students as political agents and their contributions to the process of social transformation. Drawing on in-depth semi-structured interviews and focus groups with seven student activists at the University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN), this project reflects on the role that student activists and institutions of higher learning play in the larger project of transforming post-94 society and deepening South African democracy. Informed by the voices of student activists involved in #FeesMustFall and more recent campaigns against gender based violence, this study considers how student activists operate within and beyond the university to influence social change. Ultimately, I focus on how student activists conceptualize their role in creating a new social order and how that ideal translates into action. As student activists are often misunderstood, misrepresented or overlooked all together, this work fills a critical space and has important implications for our understanding of transformation in post-94 South Africa.


African History | African Languages and Societies | African Studies | Civic and Community Engagement | Education Policy | Higher Education | Politics and Social Change | Social and Cultural Anthropology | Social and Philosophical Foundations of Education


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