News & events


20 September 2023

A lasting legacy? Reflections on the #MustFall movement

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

Anye-Nkwenti Nyamnjoh and Thierry M Luescher for University World News

Between 2015 and 2017, South African higher education was engulfed by a wave of student protests demanding free decolonised African higher education. The coming 10-year anniversary of these protests provides an important opportunity to consider the aftermath and enduring significance of the student mobilisations known by hashtags like #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall.

Did these movements have a lasting impact on higher education in South Africa and beyond? What conversations did they enable and how far have they been taken, and are these conversations in need of renewed consideration and urgency today? Are there emergent issues and conversations that build on, transcend or even supersede the 2015-16 movement?

These broad questions were the subject of a two-day colloquium organised by the Human Sciences Research Council in Cape Town and funded by the Cambridge-Africa Alborada Research Fund. The discussion broached several themes, yielding two major debates around rupture and decolonisation.

Rupture, intersectionality and epistemic decolonisation

The conference debated whether ‘Fallism’ could be considered an ideological rupture in the sense of ‘out with the old and in with the new’.

Kayum Ahmed of Columbia University, one of the participants on the conference, argued that Fallism was born of “a combination of epistemic disobedience and public pedagogy”; demanding the fall of the colonial university while generating Fallism as an emergent theory.

In addition to being outward because it targeted the university, Ahmed argued that epistemic disobedience was also a phenomenon internal to the #MustFall-related movements, which “saw black radical feminists invoke intersectionality in a struggle to delink Rhodes Must Fall from patriarchal expressions of Black Consciousness and Pan-Africanism”.

This was echoed by Mbalenhle Matandela, consultant and board member of the Sexual and Reproductive Justice Coalition, who located rupture in the feminist praxis that students nurtured and fought for within and beyond the movement.

Rhodes Must Fall challenged dominant masculinist protest cultures and constructions of decolonisation by registering the presence of black feminist voices within the movement and leveraging intersectionality as a tool of analysis.

Furthermore, Matandela observed that “the language and tactics of intersectionality from Rhodes Must Fall and the #RUReferenceList at Rhodes University in 2016 were evident in the #TotalShutdown movement of 2018 against gender-based violence and femicide”.

In this regard, she argued that “the student movement conscientised the South African political imagination on black radical feminism and intersectionality, and this feature has remained in South African public discourse”.

Nobubele Phuza’s intervention conceptualised the collision between the student movement with dominant institutions (ideas, norms, and values) as cause field, with the disruption breaking boundaries and creating a new opening and social space for something new to emerge. This notion of rupture focused on the cracks it produced for something new to grow.

In this respect Phuza, who is a lecturer at Nelson Mandela University, said that “the #MustFall movements and Fallism in general were catalytic elements of reconfiguring patterns of relations which changed the equilibrium of the field of higher education in South Africa”.

Josh Platzky Miller similarly defined ruptures as “breaks from existing patterns that rapidly destabilise and denormalise existing social relations, creating the possibility for something new to emerge”. He argued that the social rupture brought about by the student movement rapidly translated into an “epistemic rupture” – the break with existing understandings and search for authentic African knowledge and conceptual tools – involved in the notion of epistemic decolonisation.

“The #MustFall movements did more than anything else in South African history to reshape knowledge that is being produced within universities,” said Platzky Miller, who lectures at the University of the Free State.

Counter-hegemonic potential of Fallism

Lindokuhle Mandyoli of the University of the Western Cape was rather more critical of the Fallist discourse’s counter-hegemonic potential and whether it amounted to rupture. He argued instead that the ideas developed by the students in protest, like decolonisation, represented another formulation of ideology tethered to capitalist hegemony.

Against this, Leigh-Ann Naidoo of the University of Cape Town focused her presentation on the solidaristic campaigns by students and workers against casualisation and outsourcing. She described them as important instances of rupture in two ways.

Firstly, student-worker alliances succeeded in shifting conversations around the university budget, debt, and risk. The political arguments contained in the decolonial agenda of Fallists forced the university to account for black life by going beyond its narratives of scarcity and austerity. Instead, student-worker alliances reframed outsourcing as a displacement of risk and the passing on of debt to the most vulnerable.

Secondly, Naidoo argued that insourcing changed the very idea of who belongs to the university community because it extends citizenship to workers and rejects the ways in which outsourcing alienates workers by making visible those who are rendered invisible by the academic project.

From transformation to decolonisation

The second debate at the conference focused on the term ‘decolonisation’ and its usage to index several student demands. Its popularisation by students marks a departure from the post-1994 policy discourse of ‘transformation’ in higher education and public life in South Africa. Though the term decolonisation has a broad history on the African continent, its deployment in higher education by South African students was relatively new.

These observations invited several points of reflection at the conference. Did decolonisation enable new conversations previously sidelined by the more popular term transformation? How did students adapt and extend its meaning? How are universities adapting to the demands made in the name of decolonisation?

Michael Smith of the University of Cape Town reflected on current efforts at curriculum change and reform in economics, with specific reference to the international network Rethinking Economics for Africa (REFA).

According to Smith, REFA is playing an important role in debates around decolonising the teaching of economics in Africa by unsettling the dominance of neo-classical orthodoxy and promoting theoretical and methodological diversity. “REFA seeks to inscribe previously ‘peripheral’ topics like race and gender in the teaching of economics [and thus] introduces issues of power, inequality, imperialism, discrimination and epistemic and ideological bias into university’s economics curricula.”

Presenting on recent research conducted at a South African university, Taabo Mugume, an institutional researcher and PhD candidate at the University of the Free State, argued that initiatives to engage with student demands to decolonise the curriculum differed from one faculty to another but were more readily taken up in the humanities, while academics in the sciences typically expressed resistance and a lack of critical engagement.

“In order to improve responsiveness at all levels there is need for greater creativity in university governance and to intentionally support conversations in seminars as well as informal spaces among students and staff,” said Mugume.


Decolonisation has also been a vehicle for provocative and productive questions about Africanness and belonging in the aftermath of the #MustFall student movements. In South Africa – where non-racialism has been on the wane and xenophobia on the rise – this conversation is critically important.

In the context of the university, student demands for decolonisation raised deep questions about the nature, orientation, and composition of a truly African university.

Such appeals to authenticity, however, present difficult questions around identity. Who is the African for whom representation is sought? What does it mean to be intellectually African? Who can successfully legitimate claims to Africanity?

From this perspective, one legacy of the #MustFall movements is of decolonisation as a politics of belonging in which the boundaries of Africanity are debated. These questions were foregrounded by Anye Nyamnjoh, a researcher at the University of Cape Town.

Dr Anye-Nkwenti Nyamnjoh is a senior research officer in the Neuroscience Institute of the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and Professor Thierry M Luescher is strategic lead: equitable education in the Human Sciences Research Council and adjunct professor to the Chair for Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation of Nelson Mandela University, Gqeberha, South Africa.

This story first appeared in University World News.

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

Related Articles