There’s a nervous tension outside the Palm Ridge Magistrate’s Court in Soweto; hundreds of #FeesMustFall students and supporters have mustered, banners and vuvuzelas clenched in hand, anxiously awaiting the bail release of one their leaders, Mcebo Dlamini.

Arrested in mid-October after a series of brutal clashes with police on the Wits University campus in Johannesburg, Dlamini has already spent almost a full month in jail after his previous bail application was denied. He was accused of being a firebrand, goading public violence and nurturing the hostilities among students. The court argued keeping Dlamini locked up would be in the best interests of the community at large.

Mcebo Dlamini in the courtroom © GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty

When Fees Must Fall gained traction across the country (and the world), several popular student leaders rose to prominence, including the much admired former Wits student body (SRC) president Mcebo Dlamini.

His brand of fiery speeches and struggle oratory feels reminiscent of South Africa’s struggle leaders from the days of apartheid. Through Dlamini’s incarceration, students continued to demonstrate.

Dlamini has had more than students on his side – his advocate, prominent South African personality Dali Mpofu has been

vocal about the political motivations behind Dlamini’s detention.

Mpofu backed Dlamini’s claims that the police’s constant disruptions of student meetings, even the peaceful ones, were a clear infringement on their constitutional rights.

Mpofu isn’t the only one speaking up about the police’s response to the student protests either – the ANC Women’s League have spoken out against the teargas-and-bullet approach to crowd control on university campuses, and dozens of prominent social commentators have noted with disappointment that the official response to protest in South Africa is always a violent one. Police officers are now heavily armed and employing military-esque tactics using teargas, water cannons and firing rubber bullets to disperse crowds.

Even former SA Public Prosecutor Thuli Madonsela – while urging students to be calm and not resort to violence – also tweeted last week that the state’s tendency to meet violent protest with an iron fist is not a useful response.

As police escalate their response, protestors respond with more violence. It’s no wonder then that the Fees Must Fall too has taken this route – though there are finally signs that there may be a shift in tactics.

Young people are being deprived of an opportunity to be at school by this black government.

After a month left to languish in Johannesburg’s ‘Sun City’ (a popular nickname for the city’s most infamous prison) Dlamini walked out of the Palm Ridge Magistrate’s court a victor, head held high, fist pumping the air much to the utter jubilation of his assembled supporters. As the crowd lifted him onto their shoulders and carried him down the street he indicated a concrete block that would serve as his soapbox: Dlamini had something to say.

‘I don’t regret each and every hour that I’ve spent in that isolation,’ he said. ‘I used every minute to think about the future of a black child in this country. I am grateful for the opportunity that they gave me to be with other black men who have been deprived of an opportunity in this country; these people are in prison because the state has failed them… The conditions on the ground have forced people to languish in Sun City… Young people are being deprived of an opportunity to be at school by this black government.

‘We have a bigger role to play to liberate young people in this country… those in leadership are enriching themselves and their families – the call for free education has never been important like it is now… our people have been forced to be criminals because of the failed that state that we live under. You can’t speak about economic freedom without education… if we don’t have that free education then the struggle continues.’

Dlamini punctuated his speech with the update that said the Fees Must Fall movement intended to shift gear to a more legal route and was planning to take government to court over the fees issues. The lynchpin in their argument now seems to be that free education could possibly be argued as a constitutional issue. Dlamini says they’re working with their lawyers and establishing a stronger, core leadership to take the matter forward.

Dlamini himself also needs to learn to channel potent fiery rhetoric into strong leadership.

It’s a fairly good idea, possibly their best yet, but that’s just one option. An equally important tactic would be for these #FeesMustFall leaders to find a way to constrain the more subversive elements within their ranks (those who use the protests as an excuse for larceny and destruction). This shuts down any negotiations and goodwill towards the students’ plight.

Mcebo Dlamini dances with a helmet belonging to the University private security and with a shield © MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty

Dlamini himself also needs to learn to channel potent fiery rhetoric into strong leadership and that may mean setting a better example for his cohort by avoiding further jail time or, at least, not playing the martyr card as often. A major condition of Dlamini’s bail agreement was that he was not to be involved in any further civil disobedience on campus.

And yet, just days after his release, he was addressing crowds on the Wits University campus and a few days later he text messaged a local radio station claiming he couldn’t make his scheduled interview because he had been rearrested by police. An investigation later proved this to be false, and though Dlamini does claim he was questioned by police at Alexandria Police Station near Sandton, there are no record of this happening.

His first point of contact after his ‘arrest’ was a journalist at a radio station and not his own legal representation – and when your cause starts prioritizing publicity over justice your arguments start to unravel.

#FeesMustFall has a tough fight on its hands – it needs to reign in those spurious offshoots, strengthen its leadership and prepare itself for a long legal battle.

Another problem involves the ‘decolonizing’ of the curriculum; most agree that intellectual knowledge tends to not be inclusive. It is too male dominated, and is prone to ignoring African perspective in favour of more European ones. Some protesting students have taken that to mean ditching established knowledge in favor of more ‘traditional’ belief system. These arguments  often get more publicity than perhaps more important mandates – like the call for free basic education (for primary, secondary and high school learners), which is a far more critical need for uplifting the country’s youth and allowing them to access opportunities that are key building blocks for a young democracy.

A quality basic education and high literacy levels are also a significant equalizer when it comes to applying to universities and receiving scholarships and funding for further studies, something most students desperately need.


#FeesMustFall has a tough fight on its hands – it needs to reign in those spurious offshoots, strengthen its leadership and prepare itself for a long legal battle if it wants to force government’s hand in doling out free education (although it’s likely that they may see a watered-down outcome closer to a greatly-reduced-fees-and-highly-subsidized-education model instead).

Tougher still, the movement needs to drum up some smart alternatives to assist with students’ fees – a good bet would be to entice businesses to come onboard in a much bigger way (and several other ‘venture-style’ initiatives) but to do that they need to make their students seem like an attractive investment in the future development of the country… and they won’t achieve any of that by burning down buildings and rioting through exam halls.