ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Apartheid has not Ended

#FeesMustFall Movement in South Africa

Dominic Brown (dominic@amandla.org.za) is a student activist and works at the Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC), Cape Town, South Africa. 

The student and workers protest across South African universities has highlighted the inequitable growth and racism that still exists even after 21 years of democratic rule. This article traces the roots of the #FeesMustFall movement and charts a path for solidarity with other marginalised groups in the country.

South Africa is experiencing a national crisis that began during the last weeks of October 2015. Students’ protests occurred at campuses across the country shutting down 22 out of 24 universities and disrupting the National Parliament. The students were protesting against the proposed increase in higher education fees as well as the  poor treatment of workers in support services in universities. The call throughout South Africa was #FeesMustFall and #EndOutsourcing.

The gulf between the haves and the have-nots has increased in South Africa despite 21 years of democratic rule in largely because of the government's neoliberal policies. Workers and the unemployed have as much a right to education as the middle class and the rich. However, accessing this right can be challenging especially for marginalised communities.

The parents of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who make it to higher education have to work long hours, get an extra job just to support their kids’ dream of getting a good education and inevitably fall into debt. These challenges are exacerbated because of the privatisation of education. So one has to ask—how is it possible to rise above your circumstances when access to education is available only to those who can afford it?

The current wave of protests makes it clear that the class struggle is real. Simply put, the issue goes beyond the students’ rejection of the 6% increase in education fees that sparked the conflagration. The students have had to face that section of South African society who feel strongly that if you cannot afford something, work harder till you can afford it or look for something that you can afford. Access to certain privileges such as the right to higher education is contingent on their social background, the students have realised.

The struggle of #FeesMustFall is a campaign that resonates very strongly with me.  Even though I have completed my studies at Cape Town University through a bursary, the authorities have claimed that I owe them money. One can interpret this incident as bureaucratic negligence but I believe it signifies the way education is being privatised.

Student Demands

The students want fees to be reduced and free access to education. It is also important to recognise that the issue of outsourcing university support staff is not a new one, but it has been neglected for a long time. The workers are demanding a minimum wage of R 12,500 per month (US$ 900). Rather than outsourcing and privatising university staff, these workers must be employed by the university thereby allowing them to access the full benefits of being permanent employees.

Initially, most students were not outraged by the announcement that fees would increase in 2016, let alone show any interest in the issue of the treatment of outsourced workers on campus. Despite this, a small number of dedicated and politically active students who felt differently, put forth their demands and organised protests.  The university management and the Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande filed for an interdict against all the political organisations on campuses. The short-sightedness of such a decision resulted in greater outrage and was the catalyst for many more student organisations to get involved. This gave more credibility and visibility to the campaign.

Issue of Violence

The issue of the use of violence in students protests featured prominently in the #FeesMustFall campaign. As a result, there were many South Africans who, while supportive of the campaign, felt the students should have protested peacefully.  As the actions and protests intensified on campuses, the student movement began to be criticised with regard  to incidents  of vandalism at some campuses.

However the students responded to the criticism with their own logic and understanding.

Firstly, they investigated the definition of violence during protest action according to the law. There was no conclusive conception of what entailed violence.  Hence, whether a protest action or civil disobedience is deemed violent or not is dependent on interpretation. Can we regard burning tyres to be violent action?

Secondly, the students tried handing memorandums to university management before their public protests but they were not entertained. However burning tyres and barricading roads received a response. Thus, barricading the university, shutting it down and burning tyres was deemed to be an appropriate action on the part of the students in order to be heard.

Their final argument was that as the institutions in our society continue to be oppressive, burning tyres, barricading roads and occupying public spaces could be considered acts of self-defence as these acts are being done in response to systemic violence that silences the oppressed.

The protests had been relatively “peaceful” before the South African Police Services (SAPS) intervened. The SAPS agenda was clear—disperse, provoke and scare the students. The use of force by the police was unconstitutional and a gross injustice against one of the pillars of any democracy, the right to assemble and protest.

Youth Power

One thing is  certain—if the past weeks is anything to go by then the myth that South Africa’s youth is apathetic has surely been dispelled. The level of organisation and mobilisation achieved by the students has been admirable and just short of miraculous. This has led many anti-apartheid activists to argue that this is in fact a renewal of the student movement similar to that of the 1970s and 1980s. Fundamentally, the movement is centred on a worthy and legitimate cause, the fight for free access to education. To me, this proves that these students are looking beyond the next popular trend and that they care about resolving fundamental issues and challenges in South Africa today.

Another positive would be the level of leadership that has been portrayed by many of the student activists. The student leadership was a collective effort, with no particular individual leading the campaign. The students are clear about the society they envision and what it will take to get there. The level of consciousness is mature; they are level headed, analytical and strategic. This is not a movement of vigilantes; this is a movement led by a collective of intelligent, conscious young people who are disillusioned with the status quo in South Africa.

Besides the level of solidarity and unity amongst the students, we can take heart from the fact that it is women who are leading this struggle. Considering that “None are so fitted to break the chains as they who wear them”,it is inspiring to see strong and powerful women at the forefront of the #FeesMustFall campaign.

However many activists have warned that the struggle faces threat from the government and vested interests. After President Jacob Zuma announced that there would be no fee increase next year, a number of student activists were worried that the struggle will lose legitimacy. The government seems to have been successful in its attempt to demobilise the campaign. After the 0% fee increase announcement was made,the ANC-aligned South African Student Congress (SASCO), the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) and Young Communist League all pulled out of protest action.

Future Action

After the movement lost momentum, the student leaders analysed what could have been done differently. A number of important thoughts came up.

Firstly, a dialogue should have taken place between students from the campuses in the greater Cape Town area and universities in nearby places in order to ensure greater clarity on their demands and greater unity amongst the students. This should assume priority before a dialogue between the students’ movements located in different parts of the country takes place.

It was suggested that in anticipation of Zuma’s announcement that there would be no increase in fees, students should have ensured that everyone was on the same page regarding this information. The slogans of the struggle should have evolved as the campaign evolved, from “fees must fall” to “free education for all.”

The students also noted the lack of support, in terms of mobilising workers, from the trade unions. The silence from the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the biggest trade union federation in South Africa, was deafening. Having said that, it is believed more could have been done to mobilise the communities around the campaign.

Student leaders have realised that they would have to be strategic while remaining critical of the government’s actions. It would be difficult to sustain the impact that the student movement had over the past few weeks. It is evident that many students want to write exams and this is an opportunity that ought to be granted to them. It is a good time to reassess the state of the movement. Next year the registration period can act as a catalyst to spark the student movement back into action, with better resources and more caution.

Building Solidarity

A number of veteran activists drew comparisons between the #FeesMustFall campaign and the youth uprisings of 1976. The student activists acknowledged the 1976 movement and the activists borne out of the apartheid era, even though they made it clear that they were leading their own struggle.

It is time for a broader movement in South Africa that addresses the problems of inequitable growth. People are beginning to question why there are no full-time jobs for students who have paid hefty fees at universities. Those who have incurred student debt are beginning to see the importance of the demand to eradicate such debt. It is time to include free primary and secondary school education in the demands, and parents of pupils should be urged to join in the struggle. It is essential to get the workers who are alienated and their unions to get on board.

When the next moment comes, it is important that the struggle and campaign grows. It is critical that the struggle moves from the campuses to our communities. The #FeesMustFall has ignited a new sense of hope in some people in South Africa but there are many others still stuck in a tunnel and the light at the end of it is still a long way from being seen. Besides the challenge of ensuring free education for all, there are a number of other struggles that can inspire communities and South Africans to take back their power. When this moment comes, for the student activist, it is imperative that the struggle for revolution be both “black and intersectional.”

Aluta Continua

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