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A study in African resistance

(Autumn 2008)

From International Socialism 2 : 120, Autumn 2008.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Leo Zeilig
Revolt and Protest: Student Politics and Activism in Sub-Saharan Africa
Tauris, 2007, £47.50

The revolutions in “Third World” countries in the three decades after 1945 posed some problems for Marxist theory. Leadership in those revolutions did not come from the “traditional” bourgeoisie. It proved quite as politically incapable as the bourgeoisies of Germany or Russia, whose behaviour in 1848, 1905 and 1917 provoked the initial formulations of the theory of “permanent revolution”, first by Karl Marx and then by Leon Trotsky. The bourgeoisie’s lack of revolutionary leadership was not unexpected. The age of the “classic” bourgeois revolution had ended before 1848.

What permanent revolution proposed, as policy and theory, was that the struggle for political emancipation – including national emancipation from imperial control – should and could be taken up and led by working class forces. By asserting their own independent interests and developing their own specific political forms (from workers’ parties and militia to soviets) organised workers could, even while still a minority within underdeveloped capitalist formations, assert their political leadership over peasants and artisans, and so begin the process of socialist reconstruction of society under their own direct control.

However, no such scenario fitted the experience of the post-war revolutions in “backward countries”. Certainly there were cases in which workers participated in the struggle for national independence. For example, in Nigeria, Senegal, Zimbabwe and Zambia general strikes preceded the actual struggle for the transfer of power from colonial authorities. But nowhere was the actual revolutionary process marked by the assertion of independent working class power and organisation. In many cases, indeed, the revolutionary transfer of power occurred without any significant working class involvement, as Tony Cliff recorded in his examination of the revolutions in China, Algeria and Cuba (see the article Deflected Permanent Revolution, available from

Writing in 1963, Cliff offered a characterisation of the wave of Third World revolutions, offering the term “deflected permanent revolution”. Given the weakness of independent working class organisation, leadership of a whole series of revolutions had fallen to a social force previously unexpected to play this role. A radical urban petty-bourgeois intelligentsia took the political initiative and set out to impose its own vision of societal development.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the focus of Leo Zeilig’s study, this national intelligentsia was recruited from the small ranks of university educated graduates (many of them getting their degrees in the metropolitan centres, for the colonising powers had held back university development across Africa), from civil servants working in the colonial administrations and from the trade union bureaucracy. According to Zeilig, this group, mostly ex-students, came to see themselves as “the liberators of Africa and as uniquely representing the emergent nation” (p. 31).

If, commonly, they adopted a rhetoric of “socialism”, theirs was a “socialism from above” marked by a concern to use the state as an agency of essentially national development. Cliff characterised their politics sharply:

“They are great believers in efficiency ... They hope for reform from above and would dearly love to hand the new world over to a grateful people, rather than see the liberating struggle of a self-conscious and freely associated people result in a new world themselves.”

Or, as Mahmood Mamdani was to write later,

“Intellectuals ... saw the state and not the class struggle as the motive force of development ... socialism was turned into a strategy for economic development, and no more ... From this perspective, it was difficult even to glimpse the possibility of working people in Africa becoming a creative force capable of making history. Rather, history was seen as something to be made outside this force, in lieu of this force and ultimately to be imposed on it” (cited by Zeilig, p. 33).

Across sub-Saharan Africa the situation after independence was ambiguous in its effects on students. They were commonly seen, and saw themselves, as the crucial bearers of a vision of national development. However, the expected benefits of independence were slow to arrive for the majority of the population. The regimes that emerged were commonly authoritarian and the gradually expanding university sector became an important setting for political struggle. As with student movements elsewhere in the 1960s and early 1970s, student politics was often explosive yet transitory and still marked by elitism.

Zeilig’s study is focused chiefly on student movements in Africa in the subsequent period. From the mid-1970s the whole economic, political and social environment changed quite rapidly for the worse. The world recession had an especially catastrophic effect on Africa. States that relied chiefly for export income on a few primary products saw their prices collapse as the cost of their imports rose. Visions of national state-led capitalist development imploded as state debts rocketed. Compelled to turn to the IMF and World Bank, they were to adopt “structural adjustment policies” involving varying degrees of economic liberalisation and privatisation. These, if they benefited international capital, did little or nothing to improve the lot of the majority of sub-Saharan Africa’s peoples. Those majorities bore the brunt of “adjustment” in rising food prices and falling employment.

Those popular majorities provided the social basis for a wave of “street demonstrations, marches, strikes and other forms of public action” during the late 1970s and 1980s. These rocked the regimes and provided an important precursor to the anti-globalisation movement today (p. 52).

In the early 1990s the scale and extent of popular protest activity expanded rapidly, compelling many governments to introduce reforms and to hold democratic elections. Though insufficiently noticed, African countries played a key part in the wave of “democratic transitions” that, of course, included those in Eastern Europe and the former USSR. But the democracy produced has been weakly developed, not least because popular resistance to state policies of “economic liberalisation” has remained powerful:

“While the demand for economic liberalisation may have weakened formal democratic structures, in some cases it created an extraordinarily explosive cocktail of social forces” (p. 58).

That cocktail included African students. If in the immediate aftermath of independence students were an actual or aspiring elite, the same world capitalist forces that drove down popular living and working standards across the continent also pulled them down. Zeilig provides a graphic account of the problems afflicting Africa’s higher education institutions, from physical decay of buildings to the slashing of library book and journal stocks, from spiralling student fees and living costs to overcrowded classrooms and inadequate teaching. Behind these developments lie World Bank policies, themselves close to what one critic termed “academic exterminism”. In the process “university students have seen their status collapse, along with every other social class. These are general processes that have seen the decimation of classes previously regarded as privileged – teachers, university lecturers, civil servants and white collar workers” (p. 78).

It is this changed context of social breakdown that makes Zeilig’s account of recent student activism across Africa so interesting. Given the variety of conditions across the continent, any generalisation must be very provisional. Yet it is clear that students regularly played a significant role in democratisation processes. To that we must add that they were most effective when their own activism succeeded in forcing a wider political opening up, even where they themselves lacked a clear alternative strategy. As Mamdani commented, “Its possibilities depended far more on the character of forces that student action succeeded in mobilising than its own internal energies” (cited, p. 90). That conclusion, of course, fits the French events of May 1968 quite as much as it fits modern Africa.

From being an elite group, set apart from and “over” society, students – and the unemployed graduates that many go on to become – have become an important part of the popular classes themselves. Here too there are significant parallels with the “proletarianisation” of students that recent European commentators have recorded. No longer a tiny “transitory” group awaiting jobs in government, African students have at once expanded their numbers but have also been “pauperised, converging more and more with the wider urban poor – the social groups they historically saw as their responsibility to liberate” (p. 91).

This is not to say that student politics have been purged of all elements of elitism, but now they are tempered by the realities of campus poverty. African students, however, retain the ability, noted in other parts of the world, to mobilise and organise more quickly and effectively than many other social groups. If they cannot by themselves remake politics, they can and do play a specific energising role in oppositional politics which has regularly brought them into conflict with their various regimes.

At the core of Zeilig’s book are two substantial chapters based on extensive interviews detailing student activism in Zimbabwe and Senegal. In 1991 in Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe’s government introduced its first full structural adjustment programme, producing a rapid rise in unemployment accompanied by a cut in exports and growing inflation. Although it took several years for organised resistance to mobilise large-scale forces, by the mid-1990s mass strikes, student demonstrations and food riots began to coalesce against a notoriously brutal police regime.

There were growing calls on the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, to form a labour party. But these calls were soon joined by other, middle class voices. In 1999 the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) emerged, but rapidly dissociated itself from its labour base by supporting further privatisation, with the union leadership acting to contain and stifle widespread protest activity.

From the second half of the 1990s Zimbabwean students’ formerly privileged economic position was speedily reduced under a second wave of structural adjustment policies that slashed grants, expanded loans and privatised food and accommodation just as prices were soaring. Student economic demands now coalesced with demands for political reform, drawing them into links with the trade unions and the formation of the MDC.

The contradictions and tensions were considerable. Students were fighting the privatisation of education at the same time that the MDC, the party they supported, was advocating more of the same. It was in this context that the small International Socialist Organisation worked to develop some ideological and practical clarity, as Zeilig documents at some length. Zimbabwe’s campuses were rocked by protests, to which the regime responded with brutal force.

As Zeilig shows, however, a new force now entered the scene, in the shape of international NGOs, who poured in money to the opposition, producing what activists termed the “commodification of resistance”, funding expensive conferences and scholarships, and distorting the structures of indigenous opposition. Students found themselves isolated and subjected to violent assaults when they demonstrated on the campus. Zeilig’s whole chapter is invaluable for anyone trying to make sense of the current situation in Zimbabwe.

Students in Senegal had their own, less known, “May events” in 1968 when student protests coincided with widespread strikes. As their material situation worsened, economic and political issues also became intertwined with their waves of protest action. Their most notable recent role in Senegalese politics occurred in the years 2000 and 2001. To many observers, Senegal after independence had looked like a one-party state under Senghor and his nominated successor Diouf. In 2000, however, Abdoulaye Wade, himself a former student activist, succeeded in capturing the levers of state power in a hotly contested election. In that election, conducted under the slogan Sopi (change), students played an indispensable role, fanning out across the country to mobilise the vote in their towns and villages of origin.

Wade, like the MDC in Zimbabwe, saw his role as continuing “structural adjustment” policies. Within a year those policies brought him into sharp conflict with the very students who had campaigned for him in 2000. A student campaign of strikes and demonstrations, which involved the death of a law student, compelled Wade to reverse his previous support for World Bank sponsored cutbacks in university spending. Wade’s regime, having conceded, then broke the back of the student movement by buying off its leaders with overseas scholarships in a local variant of “commodification of resistance”.

If in the countries of advanced capitalism the distinct status of students has declined, making them a “student mass” (Stathis Kouvelakis) within the workers’ movement rather than a distinct class, across most of Africa students are still a much smaller proportion of the population. If many of their previous material privilege have withered, Zeilig suggests they retain some privileged autonomy as political actors. Their concentration on the campus and their unique social situation between two very different social worlds give them a degree of freedom to act collectively (and be beaten up!) when other sections of the oppressed are shackled.

Nonetheless, the international collapse of the old post-colonial project of state development and the dominance of structural adjustment programmes have converted them into “more modest agents of social change” (p. 239). Their autonomous role as agents of transformation often appears in the early stages of popular mobilisation, but is accompanied by their inability, alone, to carry through significant social and political transitions. Student militancy appears most effective when it is directly connected with struggles by unions and other popular movements – a process that reduces students’ special significance.

The collapse of state development projects, along with the ideological certainties that the Stalinist regimes used to provide, has generated widespread uncertainty in the realm of radical ideas. There is a significant dialectic at work here. In Senegal, where student resistance was less connected than in Zimbabwe to vibrant popular movements, the level of political analysis among students was also less developed (p. 243). Across sub-Saharan Africa, as in the rest of the world, the left is struggling to develop new theoretical accounts of the world and new forms of political practice that can pose real alternatives to the failures of both state capitalism and global marketisation. Leo Zeilig’s book helps capture many of the dilemmas and possibilities that are emerging.

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