Change Is Gonna Come: Students At the Forefront Once More

A garden party brought back to reality

South Africa has a powerful history of students injecting new life into the struggle against injustice. There is a sense of déjà vu for many as we watch a staid transformation debate being tossed out of the window, making way for something that has more life… and more hope. Photographs by Kate Janse van Rensburg.

A snowballing movement is gaining traction at our tertiary institutions nationwide.

At the University of the Free State this week, students, staff and academics placed their thumbprints on a canvas to indicate their support for the No to Racism/Yes to Equality campaign. This is part of an ongoing initiative to mobilise the campus community against racism and to prepare for a large gathering on 28th April where debate and discussion will be encouraged around the issues of transformation on campus.

In Gauteng #TransformWits has been calling for radical transformation through greater support for working class students, an increase in black academic staff and a more Afrocentric curriculum.


Meanwhile students at Rhodes University held a protest following their graduation last Saturday calling for academic transformation. Many of the students had graduated just hours before. Then, making those symbols of Western academia truly their own, they tackled the matter at hand. In caps and gowns they interrupted a garden party celebration held on the campus. Certificates tucked away they drew attention to inequality at the university.

Black Student Movement

The Black Student Movement (BSM) was at the forefront of the protest.

“The garden party is a perfect example of the cultural assumptions made with regards to students and their parents. It’s high tea, a very foreign means of celebrating for Africans let alone working class citizens in South Africa,” said Julie Nxadi, a member of the BSM. “The interruption of something as (supposedly) ‘proper’ as a high tea celebration…was a means of inserting ourselves into the space that is meant to celebrate our achievements, but often times makes not only us but our parents uncomfortable,” she said.

The student movement for change is gathering a momentum that will become a turning point in our history much like Soweto 1976 was for a previous era.


Following their graduation protest, and the fall of the Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town, members of the BSM will take part in a curriculum development conference this weekend at Rhodes titled ‘(Re)Making the South African University, Curriculum Development and the Problem of Place’.

Noloxolo Nhlapo, organizer of the conference and director of Equity and Institutional Culture, commented on the inclusion of student’s voices saying that they should be consulted in curriculum development processes seeing as they’re the end consumers. “That students are not ordinarily consulted is because of the gap between policy and practice. They should participate both in the planning of the conference and in the conference program itself,” she said.

Ndapwa Alweendo, a member of the BSM criticized the traditional concept of conferences which brings in ‘academic experts whose politics are often problematic’ and believes that student participation is necessary to ‘hold people accountable for their politics’.


“Part of transformation is entering these spaces and conversations and making sure that the marginalised student voices are heard, and that what they say has a lasting impact,” said Alweendo. “Conferences and colloquiums often reinforce the completely false division between ‘academics’ and ‘passive students’, and active student involvement is a disruption of this problematic power dynamic, and an assertion of our relevance in any conversation about transformation that aims to be relevant.”

Nhlapo called student concerns ‘genuine’ and insists that they university is listening seriously to their demands. “The Vice Chancellor has met with students and each time he opened himself up to hearing them. Perhaps what we need to do further is to find out why they are still crying,” said Nhlapo.

The conference programme includes presentations from students around the country as well as from academic institutions that include Fort Hare, Walter Sisulu University and Wits. Discussions will include:

  • a dialogue on discrimination in scholarship
  • a critical look at the Art History curriculum
  • and the inclusion of multilingual courses

Speakers include recently inaugurated Rhodes vice chancellor Sizwe Mabizela, medical anthropology researcher Gcobani Qambela from North West University, historian and education activist Dr Nomalanga Mkhize from Rhodes University, social anthropologist Dr Shannon Morreira from UCT and associate professor and author, Leonard Praeg from the Department of Political and International Studies at Rhodes.

The two day curriculum conference will be held at Rhodes University on 17 and 18 April.


While students lead the need for change, let’s link the past and present with the words of the ever popular Sixties Sam Cooke song:

There’ve been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
A Change Is Gonna Come…

  • UFS No to Racisim/Yes to Equality Pledge
  • UFS No to Racisim/Yes to Equality Pledge
  • UFS No to Racisim/Yes to Equality Pledge
  • UFS No to Racisim/Yes to Equality Pledge