‘The revolution will be intersectional or it will be bullsh*t’

This is a phrase associated with the 2015 #feesmustfall and #rhodesmustfall movements: South African students are fighting for the right to a free education and decolonisation of the university system.

They are also fighting against the legacies of apartheid and colonisation that has left us one of the most unequal societies in the world, with the poor predominantly black, and the privileged predominantly white. They are fighting for societal transformation.

Last year the successes achieved by these movements reverberated around the world, and they continue to provoke and challenge South Africans in the early months of 2016


There is much that is fascinating about the student movements. But one of the things that captures my attention as a complexity scholar is their insistence on intersectionality. I’ve no doubt my understanding of this is still limited, but here’s a try: it is that the objectives of the revolution are multiple, and can only be realised together. Not only fees must fall, but also colonialism, unfair labour practices, gender inequality, prejudice and privilege and exclusion in any form.   True to a complexity perspective, nothing is separable in a complex dynamic system, even in its conception.

I’ve argued elsewhere that the climate mitigation policy community of practice continues to conceive of climate mitigation as separate to ‘development’, despite our acknowledgement that both require addressing, and that ‘development’ needs are paramount.

What can we learn from #feesmustfall?

Right now, I have a question for the students, excruciatingly aware of my position as a white, older, privileged member of our society, a member of a highly educated elite: how can my policy community of practice speak into your revolution? For as I see it climate change, both mitigation and impacts, in South Africa, are absolutely inseparable from the other issues you have identified.   Transformation of our society to one that is low carbon and just is a national policy objective, but one which we are far from understanding how to achieve.

Perhaps because of who we are as individuals, and as a policy collective, we have not yet been able to understand what is needed in order to connect with the objectives of powerful systems transformation movements such as yours.

But I’m wondering, with humility, whether intersectionality as a concept might be something we can work with.

4 thoughts on “‘The revolution will be intersectional or it will be bullsh*t’

  1. Thanks for this Emily, a valuable read, and deeply challenging for our community of practice and society. Particularly striking for me is the humility you emphasise and the willingness to see what can ‘we’ learn from ‘them’. I think both these dimensions are in short supply in the dialogue we are seeing. With the dominant modes of engagement of the white middle class ranging from apathetic/indifferent to defensive/dismissive. For me the humility you communicate needs to be integral to how we engage, I think we (white middle class), need to express that we are sorry for the existence of a system that we may not have created, but have benefitted from and in many respects upheld, and mostly we need to shut up and listen deeply.

    I so agree with the light you shine on intersectionality, and found your interpretation useful. Because by acknowledging the intersectional nature of the challenge, shows just how deep this struggle runs, it’s far deeper than a fees protests, and therefore it involves all of us. Hence deep introspection is required by each one of us, to engage with how do I as an individual respond. Because without everyone engaging we can’t move forward. As the low carbon community, we have to be connected with our context, failing to engage with those shaping the current context, will leave our work irrelevant. I would also say that even our mainstream policy has failed to really listen to movements such as RMF, and hence failed to grapple with some deeply entrenched issues that are still prevalent in SA. In this vain, perhaps that’s a role for the low carbon/devmit policy community to be provocateurs for building an alternative dialogue space/voice that informs futures that are rooted and attentive to the current context and the shapers of this context (RMF being an example of this).

    Here’s an article I found thought-provoking http://africasacountry.com/2016/02/the-burning/

    I look forward to continuing this complex and challenging discussion,


    1. Thanks Mike, your response is encouraging and thought provoking. I particularly like your proposition of there being a role for the low carbon/devmit policy community as pioneers of spaces which will inform our collective future generally, and not only with regards to low carbon.

      I’ve recently come across an initiative in the US of ‘teach-ins’ for the ‘next-system project’ (http://teachins.thenextsystem.org/?mc_cid=fbaf12e1b2&mc_eid=917675df53 ) which resonates so strongly with aspects of the RMF / FMF movements here. I wonder if there is a way to link up with this?


  2. I think intersectionality is essential in all our struggles. I do worry that the activists among us, start to take this on wholesale before anyone else though, and in doing so the individual cause that they champion is lost. A clear message is vital, and experts on individual issues are necessary.

    What I think we need to be better at is supporting one another’s individual causes, within our own. An environmental organisation should do away with gender normative bathrooms for instance, however they should not start actively campaigning on gender issues.


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