State and civil society: #FeesMustFall movement as a counter- hegemonic force? A case of the University of the Western Cape experience
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The #FeesMustFall (#FMF) movement is an important moment in South Africa as it provides insight into the evolution of the relations between state and civil society. An inquiry into the 2015/2016 student protests at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) shows the contradictions that persist in South African society twenty years after apartheid. The study examines the reaction of the state to the dissent embodied by #FMF demands. Drawing on Gramsci and Althusser the study develops a framework against which #FMF is assessed, in order to test whether the movement was counter-hegemonic, if so, to what extent. The assessment is done using a qualitative approach to the research; i.e. auto-ethnography, which relies on the experiences of the author, as a tool of data collection. The selection of this technique is informed by the proximity of the author to the protests, and scarcity of prior research done on the UWC #FMF case. Also, the study uses primary data such as media statements, media articles, YouTube videos, speeches, interviews and personal communications as a means to triangulate the auto-ethnographic data. The data gives insight into the origins of the movement at UWC, the motivations of, and the tactics employed by the leaders. The movement at UWC shuts down the campus, blocks national roads, marches to the airport and even disrupts exams in attempts to see its mission through; a mission of Fee Free Education. Finally, drawing on the framework from Gramsci and Althusser this study notes the persistence of contradictions such as access to higher education in democratic South Africa. It shows the battle for hegemony between the state and civil society and identifies the dominance of the state, and how it deals with those who challenge it. To this end, #FMF does embody some counter-hegemonic quality. However, the study also reveals how #FMF carries out its actions in the boundaries of hegemonic institutions such as the constitution and the university. Hence, the extent of #FMF’s counter-hegemony went as far as affecting the operations of the university and not the structure thereof. As such, #FMF, like other radical civil society agents of its kind, is an example of issue based and temporary counter-hegemony. Although significant, it is not necessarily that which would see the complete overthrow of the university, or the state for that matter.