We’ve been aware of students’ cries for lower education fees for years. The movement has been broadcast through angry protests at universities like Tshwane University of Technology and Durban University of Technology. We’ll even go as far as saying that other universities like the University of Pretoria were silent, but for meagre Twitter trends, when the university announced their fee increases. Why did the #FeesMustFall movement start and gain traction at WITS?
At Wits the #FeesMustFall movement was started by the SRC and I was the President of the SRC at that point, a lot of planning went into this and we took a deliberate decision to systematically shut down the university on October 14, the first day of the protest under the WitsFeesMustFall banner. The strategic thinking that informed the shutdown was to physically and symbolically show the inaccessibility and exclusionary nature of our higher education institutions. We knew, however, that a protest in the corner of the university which made lots of noise but affected no one would not be effective at all. Hence, we made a strategic decision to disrupt the academic program of the university via a complete and systematic shut down. The shut down was further symbolic in that it physically depicted the inaccessibility of higher education in South Africa (and Africa in general). We also built on the momentum of the October 6 movement which was a coordinated protest to End Outsourcing by 2016, the All Residence Council, and the Workers Solidarity Committee were some of the first groups to fully endorse the SRC stance on Fees. As the weeks went by, the only force behind this Fees Must Fall movement has been the unity and determination of students, at our campus, nationally and even internationally.
We were part of the groups that documented the Pretoria movement from vigils and marches on the University of Pretoria grounds to the apex of the marches, #FeesMustFall at the Union Buildings. The overall sense of the march from the University of Pretoria side was one of comradeship and peace. What are your views on the use of force and violence that appeared at the #FeesMustFall march at the Union Buildings?
The protest was premised on a non-violent systematic shut down on our campus. To understand the violence you must consider both sides, firstly students feel extremely insulted by being disrespected by university management who refuses to listen to student demands, both at historically white and historically black universities. The tension is a build up of justified outrage, the university is a violent space symbolically for poor students, when protesting peacefully we had cars ram into us, we were beaten, threatened with guns and knives, tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed. Universities and the government have still not acknowledged the silent violence innate in the commodification of our institutions and should be held accountable for inciting this violence.
On that note, what do you think the successes and failures of the movement have been? And, is there could be anything you would change?
As Vladimir Lenin says, “There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen”. Nothing can describe more aptly what took place in October, without undermining the immense commitment of many who came before us as well. The Fees Must Fall movement of October last year has changed the way people view the youth, we were seen as rudderless and weak. But those who held those views towards us were proven very wrong, we have been clear that we as young people are analysing what is going on in the country holistically and have a very strong and sober vision for what we want the future and the present to look like. We have battled with the demons of our past in shaping this vision and we are not ignorant to the rainbow-washing that has been detrimental structurally. We therefore see our struggle for the accessibility of education as one with the workers struggle for dignity and an end to exploitation. In anything in South Africa especially at Wits where we have a vibrant political culture there is going to be ideological differences and political fractures will rear their ugly heads inevitably. The biggest strength of the movement was the power that we as a united and mobilized youth had, and it is also going to be the movement’s downfall if a lack of vision and political maturity is fuelled into fighting petty politics. We can only win if we are united; the movement needs to remain non-partisan and black youth driven and there needs to be a lot more emphasis placed on historically black universities as they are the worst off. For Free Education to become a reality there must be a nationally coordinated movement that unites all students in South Africa, there is no other way. At this point in the movement, there must also be a clearer emphasis on what we mean when we say Free Education and what type of ideological model for Free Education we think would best fit South African needs. There must be a balance between protest informed by intellectual thought. Finally, this quote by Sun Tzu from the Art of War needs to continue to guide us: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
We were noticed that you were a Twitter trend during the marches. Could you provide some insight on the influence that social media is having on this movement?
Social media was a space that we could contest given our class privilege as well. You will for example see more Wits students using social media than students at historically black universitities. But we tried our best to create whatsapp groups and email lists and the like to ensure that there was some form of national communication and coordination where everyone felt included. It was also used as a tool to dispel “hooliganist” images of students that did not bear in mind the context of the situation on the ground. Media in general is classist and racist, we were called hooligans on Day 1 and by Day 10 hailed as heroes, it changes with popular public perceptions and I think as students we were strategic and used media to our advantage as much as we could but the inherent racism and classism in the disparity between the media attention focus on Wits and historically white universities in comparison to our historically black counterparts was constantly noticeable. In many ways Wits and other historically white universities are to Tut and other historically black universities what Paris is to Beirut.
What was it like being arrested because of #FeesMustFall? And, are you worried that the arrest has drastically impacted your future?
I wrote something on this when we were released and I think it answers the question: “When I was young I was always told that in the new South Africa a cell was a place for bad people, for people who have broken the law of the land, for criminals, murderers and rapists. I never thought that I would see the inside of a cell. For to be on the inside of a cell implies that I have done something bad, that I deserve to be in the same space as criminals, murderers and rapists. Sitting in the cell made me think, ponder and introspect about this. What bad thing have I done? During this time there was one thing that kept ringing in my head; and that was “Senzeni Na, Sono sethu ubumnyama” (What have we done, is our crime merely to be black?).
Sitting in the cell made me very angry and emotional about what happened. I felt the pain of our mothers who know not a life but one of poverty, a lifetime of having being made to feel perpetually worthless. I wonder is this the life that is deserved, the life on the land that their forbearers lived on and their forbearers before that. Sitting in the cell despite this inescapable pain, our mothers remained brave and resilient. Mam Lebogang patted me to sleep as if she bore me from her own womb, Mam Maria made sure I had eaten before she put a morsel of food in her own belly, and Mam Ntokozo sang and danced to keep our morale high, using empty 5 litre water bottles as drums she sang, “They probably did this in 76’ but we have 100% fruit juice and pizza so we’re going to take it up a notch!”, this is of course a loose translation based on my very basic understanding of isi Zulu, ngiyafundza kancane. Sitting in the cell can be a very hopeless and helpless experience. During this time one goes through a full range of emotion, empties a full bank of memories to just seek hope. If I must be completely honest, our experience of jail was by far not the harshest one; this is because we had so much of support behind us, comrades stayed up all night and sang in solidarity; we heard you. When we were hungry there was warm biryani and pizza, and the saddest part about this, much like saddest part of the occupation of Solomon House, is that many had never even tasted pizza before, many were not used to getting 3 meals a day. When we were cold there were blankets that our comrades collected and brought inside despite great difficulty and frustration at the hands of the police officers.
I will never forget late at night how a first year student, Comrade Palomino Jama came in and in my sleep, covered my cold body with a blanket. When we were woken up on several occasions abruptly and rudely several times by the police in the middle of the night we tried to go back to sleep but we were very unsettled. When we woke up in the morning Comrade Naadira Munshi along withTUT and UJ students served us bread and hot tea. This support kept us strong. Memories that came flooding to my mind were the stories of those who have seen the four walls of a cell before. I remember reading about the strength of Mama Winnie Mandela when she was arrested and abused at the hands of the white man when under house arrest in the town of “ Brandfort” in the Free State. Her fight was to restore the dignity of the millions of black people. I remember the story of Bantu Stephen Biko and his arrest and how this led to his violent death in a cell like this. He was fighting for a cause much the same as to what we are fighting for today, was it not Biko who taught us that the most powerful weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed? I wonder what Comrade Chris Hani thought about sitting in a cell like this one, i wonder if he was here; would his revolutionary conscience have allowed him to join us in this struggle for he did once declare “We need to create the pathways to give hope to our youth that they can have the opportunity through education and hard work to escape the trap of poverty.” All of these men and women mentioned above were called hurtful names, were labeled, and demonized. For the sole purpose of fighting for something bigger, for challenging an unjust system, for standing up when it was not fashionable to do so, yet history absolved them, history praised them; history raised them to mythical status because they fought, challenged and stood up. In many ways history will absolve Mam Lebogang who slept next to me in the corner of the cell, she was suffering with swollen feet, an eye infection, and a headache, Mam Maria who sits here because she knows her family are doomed to eternal destitution as long as she is paid a wage so low that there is no escape from the pangs of poverty. Turning our backs on the vulnerable, oppressed and marginalised in society is a cowardly act.
As a youth fighting for change, we must see our struggle for what it is: our struggle began with a demand for a 0% fee increase as a symbolic commitment to Free Education; for an end to outsourcing and the restoration of the dignity of our mothers and fathers on our campuses; and for free, quality higher education. Yinde lendlela esi hamba yo, sizimisela uku hamba lendlela no ma kunzima sizo fika ku Free Education. The great friend of my ANC, Comrade Fidel Castro says “A revolution is not a bed of roses, it is a battle between the past and the future” Let us not find ourselves on the wrong side of history.”
You have a platform to tell us where you want us mobilised in this movement. What would you like us to do in order to support #FeesMustFall?
We must see things as they are, our universities are not built to empower African students and that is something that in an African country is unjustifiable. We have not made the kind of progress in education that is necessary for the upskilling and uplifting of the young population that South Africa has. 1 in every 2 people is under the age of 25, this means that half of the population needs to be prioritized and pushed forward, and in a knowledge-based economy we need to ensure that free and quality education is a reality: South Africa cannot afford not to afford Free and Quality Education for the poor.
What do you think is next for #FeesMustFall and how do you think this objective will be accomplished?
The Fees Must Fall movement at Wits has brought to light the dichotomous and eurocentric nature of our student body where there is a Wits for the rich and a Wits for the poor; our universities on the whole need to focus on decolonization. The movement on a national level has made billions of rands worth of change in the education sector and this is a victory, but the road is long and there is a failure by the government to addresses the root of our problems: structural inequality and the failure of funding schemes that indebt students rather than empower them. So we see governement and universities treating symptoms and not the real problems. In this country being intelligent is still not good enough if you are poor. This means that last year was just the beginning, we achieved a 0% increase, and at various universities commitments and strides were made in the end outsourcing battles to restore the dignity of our workers. Wits is currently in a negotiation process to provide a R4500 minimum wage until outsourcing is abolished as a system, and the children of outsourced workers who qualify academically to study at Wits will now be able to do so for free, including accommodation expenses. However, education is still not free for those who have been historically looted and therefore financial exclusions are again upon us as the academic year begins. We must seriously question our commitment to the struggle and refuse to allow things to go on as normal if we know the system has excluded any returning students on socio-economic grounds. We must now come together again, restrategize as a concerned and committed South African youth by putting politics and privilege aside and thinking about the collective and in particular the most marginalized amongst us. We must not forget that in this country race and class are inherently intertwined, we are not born-frees living in a rainbow nation. “You can’t drive a knife into a man’s back 9 inches- take it out 6 inches and then call it progress.” These are the words of Malcom X and this exactly how our universities operate. They have been systematically stabbing poor and black students for far too long. Amilcar Cabral says tell no lies and claim no easy victories, there willl be many who say that this movement belongs to them but this movements belongs to all students and we all have a role to play. Victory is certain and there is no true victory until our universities stop functioning as businesses who see poor students only as liabilties.
Featured Image by: Roxanne Joseph
Photos by: Lourens Smit