‘Global 1968’ and the African continent

Fifty years after student protests shook much of the Cold War world, in the ‘West’ and in the ‘East’, “Global 1968” has become the catchword to describe these profound generational revolts. West-Berlin, Paris, Berkeley spring to mind prominently, and Prague behind what was then the ‘Iron Curtain’. For most of recent commentators and scholars, this appears to have constituted ‘Global 1968’. At the beginning of the anniversary year, for instance, a recent publication by a German scholar of contemporary history, Norbert Frei, dubbed ‘1968: youth revolt and global protest’ (2017) made it to the front tables of major Berlin bookstores. Frei’s monograph includes chapters on Paris, and on the events in the United States, Germany, Japan, Italy, the Netherlands, and the U.K. in ‘The West’, supplemented by a chapter on ‘Movements in the East’, which discusses protest in Prague, Poland and the GDR.

Neither Africa, nor indeed any part of the Global South are mentioned by Frei. What then, I was wondering is his concept of the ‘Global’ of the revolt??

Latin America gathers a little more attention with the 1968 events in Mexico City that may be mentioned in the discussion. In contrast none of the relevant overviews brings related events to the fore that may have happened on the continent.

What may be the reason for the fact that in the current debates on ‘1968’ and its legacy, the African continent is almost never mentioned. It certainly wasn’t the case that nothing happened on the continent that matched the activism of the revolting generation elsewhere? It appears that students in a range of African countries contributed to the global uprising with their own interpretations, from Senegal and South Africa to the Congo and the Gambia, to mention just a few but that those have been forgotten in the global discourse of commemoration.

There is clearly much need to look more closely at African events, trajectories and meanings of 1968 activism. For a start here are two vignettes of student protests that come to mind; both took place in 1968 on the continent. The first uprising happened in Dakar, the second in Cape Town.

Student-led protests against rising food prices and neo-colonialism: Dakar 1968

Most who are celebrating the anniversary in the Global North this year may be surprised to hear that in May 1968 it was not only France where a student-led revolt almost sent a government packing, but that this also happened in Senegal. In Dakar students had been on strike from March 1968, initially because of conditions in the university; from April 1968 they connected with broader concerns in the society, such as the high price of local staples, the fall in the standard of living, unemployment of graduates, and foreign domination of the domestic industry (Zeilig 2007: 181-2). In May the Senegalese trade unions adopted the students’ slogans and joined the struggles. Leo Zeilig (2007: 182) who has studied the Senegalese protests in the wider context of African student movements, describes the events of Dakar ‘68:

On demonstrations the crowd declared: ‘Power to the people: freedom for unions’, ‘We want work and rice.’ The coalition of student and working-class demands culminated in the general strike that started on 31 May. Between 1 and 3 June ‘we had the impression that the government was vacant … ministers were confined to the administrative buildings … and the leaders of the party and state hid in their houses!’ …
… The government reacted to the strike by ordering the army onto the university campus, with instructions to shoot on sight. During a demonstration after these events, workers and students decided to march to the presidential palace, which was protected by the army. French troops openly intervened, occupying key installations in the town, the airport, the presidential palace and of course the French embassy. The university was closed, foreign students were sent home and thousands of students were arrested.

There has been some discussion among former activists and analysts in how far the events in Dakar were connected to those in Paris. Although it seems clear that they were certainly no distant ripples of the storm in the French metropole, authors like Zeilig maintain that they were indeed a part of the global movement of “1968” youth revolt. At the same time that the events in Dakar related to those in the country’s former colonial capital, they were connected also to local histories of protest, such as those at the U.S. embassy in Dakar after the assassination of the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba. They also need to be considered in the context of broader waves of student activism and rebellion on the African continent; again the Congo played a prominent role, where after the assassination of Lumumba student politics had become radicalised, with impact on both the local, the African, and indeed the international (Global North) student movements. Student revolt took different forms in response to varying local, national and regional conditions, yet the late 1960s saw protests in countries across the continent.

Student protests against apartheid and institutional racism: Cape Town 1968

South Africa too had its 1968 moment of transgressive student activism.

At the country’s oldest university, the University of Cape Town (UCT) Archie Mafeje, a black Masters graduate of UCT (‘cum laude’) and by then in the process of completing his PhD at Cambridge, was appointed in 1968 to a Senior Lecturer position in Social Anthropology. The university offered him the job, but then, after government pressure by the Apartheid regime rescinded the offer.

The issue was discussed at the congress of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), which organised most of the UCT students at the time, and the idea emerged of a sit-in along the lines of the occupations then taking place in the rest of the world. Some of those who were involved remember that the European protests were widely reported in South Africa and that students followed them with interest.

The university authorities failed to stand up against the government and in August 1968 a mass meeting took place in the imposing surroundings of the university’s Jameson Hall. After rousing speeches from student leaders, most of the 1,000 strong audience marched out and occupied the university’s administration building. Significant for the South African political condition is that almost all, if not all of the student protesters belonged to the country’s white minority.

Eventually, the occupiers – about 90 had stayed the course – gave up and left after one-and-a-half weeks. A white anthropologist was appointed in Mafeje’s place. UCT, South Africa’s oldest university, had caved in to the demands of the apartheid policy regarding university education. From 1959 onwards, South African students were admitted to universities along racial and ethnic lines – at UCT, declared a white institution black students were only admitted under exceptional circumstances, and had to apply for a special permit from the government. Although this law did not apply to academic staff members, Mafeje’s appointment was prevented.

Yet, for a brief moment in August 1968, South Africa had its taste of “1968”. Martin Plaut, one of the occupiers described this action of a section of South African white students:

Six hundred of us decided to participate in the occupation, determined not to leave until UCT reversed its decision. For ten days we held out, sleeping on the floors. Food was cooked communally – even by the men who, at that time, were largely ignorant of the workings of a kitchen. Plenty of wine and marijuana were consumed and virginities were lost, but on the whole it was a carefully managed protest, with a signs asking for rubbish to be removed and the areas being occupied to be kept clean. Messages of support flowed in from students in Paris and London and there was favourable coverage in the international media.
Perhaps the most important thing was that we discovered intellectual liberation. Alternative lectures were organised on the stairs. We got a newspaper up and running. In one fell swoop we had thrown off our mental shackles. At last we were not just some isolated racist outpost of empire, but part of an international student movement.

This conclusion was indeed significant: the student protesters felt that through their transgressive activism they had gained a sense of intellectual freedom and self-respect, which the academic institution, proud though as UCT was and remains of its ‘liberal’ stance was not able to maintain.

The events in Dakar and Cape Town demonstrate examples of students revolting in very different ways and contexts on the continent. They point out that to understand the sixties histories in a truly global perspective, student protests and movements in Africa need to be included in the historical-political, social and cultural analyses of this extraordinary period.

Frei, Norbert. 2017. 1968: Jugendrevolte und globaler Protest. München: dtv.

Plaut, Martin. 2011. ‘How the 1968 revolution reached Cape Town’. martinplaut.wordpress.com/2011/09/01/the-1968-revolution-reaches-cape-town/ (last accessed 5 January 2018)

Zeilig, Leo. 2007. Revolt and Protest: Student Politics and Activism in Sub-Saharan Africa. London: I.B. Tauris.