In this most unequal of countries in the world, where 20 years of democracy have not decisively ended the centuries-long recycling of black poverty and structural racism, a routine increase of tuition fees at universities has proved to be the tipping point.
At the end of apartheid, poor, black, middle class families turned their backs on the politics of boycott of the struggle years. They invested massively in education, believing that the acquisition of technical knowledge and skills was the best means for upward social mobility.
But for many young people entering university in this new democracy, the exercise has turned out to be nothing but a debt trap.
After the nationwide protests of the past weeks, the students know where they stand.
They are no longer willing to pay for what should have been a common public good that was accessible and publicly provisioned. They want free education, and they want it now.
The protests that ended in a chaotic march to the Union Buildings are the overt manifestation of the new spirit of radicalism and defiance that has been building up on South African campuses over the past decade.
For the past few years, black students have been reading an entire corpus of black critical thought. They have been looking for a method of action in the manner of Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko.
They have been asking for a reformed curriculum, the end of institutional racism in centres of higher learning and the abolition of outsourcing for the poor black workers in their midst.
They might not yet have a blueprint of what a reformed university might look like, but they have been organising “horizontal courses” during which they have taught themselves the latest conceptual tools in disciplines as diverse as black feminism, queer theory, critical race studies or theories of intersectionality.
Turning their back on what they perceive as the sirens of nonracialism, they have been digging in the archives of the black consciousness movement in search of an authentic pedagogy of liberation.
These intellectual currents can be found in fragmentary forms in the ideology of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). They are also at the heart of the resurgence of student activism nationwide, in the discourse of the #RhodesMustFall movement and other such initiatives.
To these ideological foundations is now added a renewed critique of political economy, as evidenced in the various narratives of those involved in the ongoing #FeesMustFall uprising.
Questions of race and property, class and inequality, identity, sexuality, justice and what many now call “lived experience” have been brought to the fore in a conscious attempt to articulate the contours of a new generation of struggles more in line with the demands of black self-assertion.
This unfolding project, which includes an explicit decentring of whiteness, has forced white students to choose whether to descend deeper into self-isolation, self-enclaving and racism, or tie their fate with that of their black counterparts.
While this mini cultural revolution was unfolding, the post-apartheid governing classes further ensconced themselves in a bureaucratic rationality that considered market metrics the ultimate indicator of who and what mattered.
From parks to nature reserves, roads, transport, housing, health, pavements and libraries, everything has been turned into a commodity and citizens into consumers.
Questions about who we are, what we should be or become and what we should or should not do as a people have been sidelined, along with those concerning what public life and common rule might look like in a society traumatised by years of white misrule.
Where does it all go now that large sections of the population have deemed morally legitimate the demands of the students, and the government has agreed to a freeze?
The historical significance of this movement cannot be underestimated. It signals in an unmistakable way the advent of a new – mostly urban and educated – generation of social protagonists on our political scene.
Characteristic of this generation is its determination to confront some of the most contentious questions the 1994 dispensation left unresolved – the economic determinants of racial domination, the struggle over land and property, the ownership of South African mineral wealth and the cultural hegemony of whiteness in a black-majority country.
Ultimately, “Who owns South Africa?” is the key antagonism at the heart of this new form of radicalism.
The genie is out of the bottle and there is no guarantee it will easily be put back.
In turning questions of ownership and access into the political conflict of the day, activists in the new radical student movement wilfully introduce a vector of polarisation in the South African political realm.
Their goal is to sharpen the contradictions that have been swept under the carpet in the past two decades. Their strategy is to exacerbate them with a view to bringing them, if not to a point of resolution, then at least into the open. If, in the process, violence becomes necessary, some are willing to embrace it.
Powerful and antagonistic forces in the ANC and across the political spectrum fully understand that the current wave of student protests might be just a teaser of the looming brutal struggles for power.
In the student movement, a romantic faction overtly entertains the dream of a South African Arab Spring. It is a dream shared by various non-academic, self-proclaimed revolutionary activists. Many will settle for nothing less than an insurrection that includes an outright storming of the Bastille.
This apocalyptic version of change remains marginal so far. But in the bloody miasma of the Jacob Zuma years, there is no guarantee it is not speaking to the masses of unemployed and disenfranchised youth who have nothing to lose.
Meanwhile, the ANC has not caught up with the kind of intellectual and cultural effervescence at the heart of the new campus radicalism. A movement originally formed by native educated elites, it is now antagonising urban educated classes.
The biggest risk facing South African universities is how they are becoming a new theatre for the proxy war between factions in the ANC, and between the ANC and emerging counter-hegemonical forces such as the EFF.
As evidenced by countless examples, key state institutions that have found themselves embroiled in these struggles are clinically dysfunctional today.
South Africa has the potential to become a major hub in the redrawing of a global higher education map. But for this to happen, it needs to recapitalise its universities.
Only in doing this will it be able to democratise educational access while harnessing the resources necessary for competition on a global scale.
Mbembe teaches at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research