P187 – Student Protesters and Social Change: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?
8 July, 14:00-15:30

Hodgkinson Dan / University of Oxford


Students are often cast – either heroically or villainously – as exemplary agitators for social change. In many African countries, students and their collective actions were conspicuous in national struggles for independence and democracy, thereby earning students a reputation for populist politics. At the same time, however, the frequency and at times destructive nature of students’ protests have resulted in students being disparaged as petty and irresponsible hooligans. This panel will analyse the dynamics and potential significance of students’ protests. What can students’ collective actions tell us about the conditions and experiences of youth, education, citizenship and/or the state? Have students’ actions distinguished them as particularly relevant or marginalized agents in contemporary societies? What repertoires of collective action do students employ and what makes these meaningful and efficacious, or not? Do students’ collective actions implicate particular socialisation and politicisation processes and effects? Is there anything new in today’s students’ protests and do these change anything?

Protestations étudiantes et changement social : plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose? 

Les étudiants sont souvent dépeints – héroïquement ou négativement – comme des agitateurs pour le changement social. Dans plusieurs pays africains, les étudiants et leurs actions collectives ont été bien visibles dans les luttes nationales pour l’indépendance et la démocratie, leur donnant ainsi une réputation méritée dans ces mouvements populaires. Dans le même temps, la fréquence et parfois, la violence destructrice liée aux manifestations d’étudiants, ont eu comme résultat de considérer les étudiants comme des hooligans dérisoires et irresponsables. Ce panel analysera les dynamiques et la signification des manifestations d’étudiants. Qu’est-ce que les actions collectives des étudiants nous disent des conditions et des expériences des jeunes, de l’éducation, de la citoyenneté et/ou de l’État? Est-ce que les actions des étudiants ont caractérisé ces derniers comme des acteurs importants ou marginalisés dans les sociétés contemporaines? Quelles sont les formes d’actions collectives qu’emploient ces étudiants et sont-elles effectives ou non? Est-ce que les actions collectives d’étudiants impliquent la socialisation et les processus de politisation particuliers? Existe-t-il quelque chose de nouveau dans les manifestations actuelles d’étudiants  et si oui, est-ce que cela contribue au changement social?

Paper 1

Hodgkinson Dan / University of Oxford (UK)

Bringing the point home: How the political struggles of student activists in post-colonial Zimbabwe played out in their families

Since independence in 1980, student activism has played a prominent role in the politics of Zimbabwe. In 1988, students became the first civic group to publicly demonstrate against the ruling liberation party; the movement was pivotal in the mass protests of the late 1990s that led to the formation of the Movement for Democratic Change; and throughout the 2000s students dramatically protested against the ruling party’s claims to political authority. Consistently in response to these protests, the ruling party has deployed masculine, gerontocratic discourses that centre on deference to elders that fought in the liberation war to violently dismiss students’ claims as childish and disrespectful. This strengthening of the role of the elder, the father, and the liberation fighter draws heavily upon and attempts to reconfigure moral discourses of the family. So what of the family? The parents of many activists fought in the liberation war and most pinned hopes on the deferred financial benefits of their children’s studies. How did parents react to the political actions of their children? What contests were played out within families around student activism, what ideological and moral discourses were deployed, and how was family life reconfigured as a result? Drawing upon life histories of activists and interviews with their families, this paper explores the strains and fractures in the relationships between student activists and their parents during this period.

Paper 2

Melchiorre Jonathan Luke / University of Toronto (Canada)

Disciplining Bodies, Disregarding Minds: Student Radicalism, State Repression and the National Youth Service Pre-University Training at the University of Nairobi, 1978-1990


Paper 3

Glade Rebecca / European Masters in Migration and Intercultural Relations

Khartoum University’s Student Movement, 1968-1973

The University of Khartoum student movement represented a significant force in Sudanese politics, intimately linked to, yet independent of, political parties because its members were largely made up of central and peripheral elites who were able to harness their status through a rhetoric of nationalism shared by the centers of power in Khartoum. These issues were particularly apparent during the period from 1968 to 1973, during which time students not only worked with political parties and forces from outside of the university, but also managed to advocate for the maintenance of their own status as a cohesive movement. Based on oral histories from student activists from this period as well as student publications, this paper argues that through an education system that created a “nation” present almost exclusively within the center, students were given standing at the university to undertake real responsibilities and a political forum in which state-wide political visions could be discussed. By taking part, students cemented their status as citizens, part of a nation and thus worthy of respect in a way others in the peripheries were not, allowing them to transcend political polarization to present themselves as a group to those outside of the university.

Paper 4

Bell Stephanie / The University of Oxford (UK)

“Every Generation Has It’s Struggle”: The Student Activist Quest to Reform South Africa’s Education System

This research brings together democratic theory’s calls for an understanding of the actually existing democratic state and anthropological work on innovative forms of citizen participation. The study focuses on access to knowledge and claims of expertise as grounds upon which citizen participation is hypothesised to be excluded or deemed unhelpful by the state. It argues, using the example of South African student activist group Equal Education, that citizens can and do train themselves to be experts on their policy concerns, including in the technocratic manner of the state’s representatives. It finds that the state’s representatives are often not the functional technocrats they are perceived to be and that for a citizen to become an ‘expert’ involves a more complex process than simply acquiring technocratic knowledge. Questions of personal experience and lived and perceived identities often interact with claims to knowledge, opening up or shutting down citizens’ ability to participate. Finally, even when citizens are able to leverage their technocratic expertise to successfully influence policy creation, they may still find it difficult to effectively participate in the implementation beyond a relatively thin role. Ultimately, the research argues that the current democratic theory ought not be so pessimistic about citizenry nor to presume that education and expertise alone will be sufficient for representatives of the state to take seriously that citizenry.

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