The protests last week were all too familiar to Tseliso Monaheng. For him, the war is by no means won. Although fees may have fallen, the struggle was tainted by divisions in the student camp. Protesters have to realise that this movement is not about fees it’s about changing a whole system of privilege.
I’d record the sound of university students protesting when I was in high school. It was a good way to pass the time before class started.
They’d gather at a central point; rally around campus in song; and end up at the front entrance. The strikes happened because students whose fees were subsidised by the government never got their money on time.
Students from institutions whose payments had also not been processed would join in as days went by. Police would get involved. Students would throw rocks and end up getting shot at with live rounds. A friend, Sechaba Keketsi, once had a sharp object thrown at him, striking him hard above his right eye and nearly blinding him while he was reporting. Hazards of the job.
I was reminded of these protests as I watched students gather at the main entrance of Wits University on Tuesday 13 October, demanding, among other things, that the proposed 10.5 per cent fee increase for 2016 be scrapped by university management. As days passed, the movement spread to a heap of universities across South Africa.
Student activists were charged up, united under the banner of pop-cademic lingo: #FeesMustFall.
Student activists were charged up; the academic trail from Free State to Gauteng to the Eastern and Western Cape, Kwa-Zulu Natal notwithstanding, was united under the banner of pop-cademic lingo: #FeesMustFall. The spark of impending revolution crackled at the heels of academia’s landowners. It was lit!
At the corner of De Korte and Bertha streets (basecamp), police officers watched while a swelling crowd crescendoed into a struggle song’s chorus at one point and then, with greater fervour, go back-and-forth with taxi drivers who wanted to kill their vibe by driving through their resilient squad.
Another group of students mobilised one block away on Jorissen Street, closer to where the past Thursday’s events had kicked off. They approached basecamp amidst cheers by primary and high school kids peeking through the windows of their own corridors of knowledge. Wits University and the University of Johannesburg students wanted to take their grievances to ANC ground zero, Luthuli House, located in the veins of Johannesburg’s hyper-networked CBD.
What unfolded that Friday felt like an undoing.
The march went through the heart of the city with little hiccups, moving past Bree Taxi rank, swishing past the South African National Reserve Bank, then galvanising the intersection of Pixley Seme and Helen Joseph streets where Luthuli House is located.
ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe came out to receive the memo. Speeches were made, songs were sung, and those who’d gathered went back to prepare for the next day’s march to the Union Buildings.
What unfolded that Friday felt like an undoing. For the part where UJ and Wits and the University of Pretoria students wanted to distance themselves from the ‘them’ that is the Tshwane University of Technology, Steve Biko’s words from Biko’s Children, a film by multi-disciplinary artist Breeze Yoko, convey what I felt:
‘If we have a mere change of face of those in governing positions what is likely to happen is that black people will continue to be poor, and you will see a few blacks filtering through into the so-called bourgeoisie. Our society will be run as of yesterday. So for meaningful change to appear there needs to be an attempt at reorganising the whole economic pattern and policies within this particular country.’
It’s not only about fees, it’s about dismantling the strictures of a system which panders to White Capital.
Fees must fall, and then the colony, but for Biko’s meaningful change to appear, the movement needs to make explicit the intersectionality of its struggle.
It’s not only about fees, it’s about dismantling the structures of a system which panders to White Capital and hence forces the mostly black citizens of South Africa to exist on the margins.
The we-versus-them praxis which unfolded after Friday’s events, painting TUT students as the villains – the same students who march every six months or so for their right to an affordable, if not free, education – needs to fall, too.