Amidst the circus that was the US election, many other pressing issues have been marginalized. In particular, last month’s violent protests throughout universities in South Africa have been ignored in favour of faux reality TV. Education is viewed as a fundamental right, which everyone should be entitled to regardless of their socioeconomic group, and over the past year South African universities have seen tensions rise due to legislation threatening to increase tuition fees.
Despite the recent outbreak of protests, this issue is not a new one: clashes originally began last October. The issue of rising tuition fees is a nationwide conflict, affecting students throughout the country, as evidenced by the widespread protests in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Port Elizabeth, and Grahamstown. South Africa saw some of their most prestigious and oldest universities, such as the University of Cape Town and Witswatersrand, come to a complete halt, with classes being suspended and security threats raised. Thousands of students came out to protest against an 11% rise in tuition fees, with the justification that these rises would heavily impact low-income students and as such many would no longer be able to afford to attend university. The issue is multifaceted, not simply being limited to economic segregation, as many protestors argue that at the crux of these riots is the flawed education system, which is arguably “not only anti-poor, but anti-black”.
During last year’s riots University of Cape Town student Motheo Lengoasa attests to the police brutality during these protests, stating ‘We were pushed back by police with force. The stun grenade was shot right next to my ear. I still have the buzzing in my ear…’ Lengoasa went so far as to liken this issue to the 1976 Soweto uprising, when upwards of 69 students were killed by police while protesting against the government imposed teaching language of Afrikaans. October 2015’s riots were only halted after South Africa’s President, Jacob Zuma, announced that there would be no fee hike in 2016, placing a freeze until 2017. Students viewed this as a win for their representatives and a testament to youth’s ability to have a real impact on legislation. Nevertheless, in light of the recent protests, this freeze was merely a short-term solution to a larger issue.
Understandably after this ‘fight’ and subsequent ‘win’ student groups were in shock after Blade Nzimande, the Minister of Higher Education and Training announced in September 2016 that it is a university’s prerogative to raise their fees in 2017. Despite Nzimande imposing an increase cap at 8.5%, students began demonstrating again and this time violence was amplified. At the University of Witswatersrand protesters took to the streets in the Braamfontein district and voiced their frustrations by toppling buses and setting them on fire. Images from the demonstrations are frightening: riot police have been discharging rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas against protesters holding banners with the slogan #FeesMustFall.
Although South Africa, post-apartheid, lauds itself as the rainbow nation, many believe that their university system tells a strikingly different story. This mentality became the platform for the movement after a politics student, Chumani Maxwele, at the University of Cape Town (UCT) emptied a bucket of excrement over a British imperialist statue of Cecil John Rhodes in a call to ‘decolonize’ higher education.
The racism within universities across the country is not limited to economic fees as within the system teachers and students perpetuate racist culture. Luister, a film created in late 2015, chronicles the experiences of 32 students and one teacher at Stellenbosch University, in dealing with ‘racist abuse, discrimination and exclusion’.
One student describes the experience of being black at Stellenbosch with the heartbreaking statement that “I feel like it’s wrong to be black … I sometimes ask myself when I’m alone, why did God make me black when a lot can happen in a good way when you’re otherwise?”
“I feel like it’s wrong to be black…I sometimes ask myself when I’m alone, why did God make me black?”
The paradox of this issue is that education is perhaps the only viable method to eradicate racism. Despite the relative success of the outcome of last year’s demonstrations, with Zuma putting a halt on the fees rise, the escalation of violence is becoming a larger issue and is an oxymoron in itself.
I interviewed University of Witswatersrand Alumna Melissa Mina, who participated in last year’s protests but takes issue with the manner in which this year’s protests have been carried out. When asked about whether the protesters’ platform of decolonisation is a valid one given that the African National Congress (ANC), a black empowerment party (and further Mandela’s party) is currently in power, Mina attests that actually that is why ‘they choose to target the universities’. ‘They can argue white supremacy in higher education but its much more difficult to attack the government’. Mina cited this paradox in the Student Representative Council (SRC), facing off with the ANC’s Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe, wherein Mantashe pushes the platform that we’re all comrades and as such how can we not be addressing the black agenda.
Further in response to the claim that the protests are anti-poor and anti-black, Mina, despite believing that they are targeted towards the wrong people, admits to ‘certain structures being in place, which hold the same socioeconomic effects that we saw during apartheid … I think in that way, the system is not necessarily anti-poor or anti-black but rather set up in a way, so that people who are black or of colour are starting out on a bad foot’.
“the system is not necessarily anti-poor or anti-black, but set up in a way so That people of color are starting out on a bad foot”
On the one hand many feel that the institutions are against them, but many others believe that the protests are creating more issues than helping. The escalated violence and more radical mindset which the universities have seen this year has led to destruction of public property and even gone so far as to burn down buildings.
Mina highlights the striking differences between last year and this year’s protests claiming that ‘Last year there was this concept of Protest and Pass, wherein you would bring textbooks and study, and then after lectures you would join the protests’. In contrast, this year ‘the loudest and most aggressive voices are being heard, especially by the media, and further if you want to participate in these protests you have to be willing to get violent’. Protesters have blatantly disrespected current students, going so far as to disrupt exams by setting off firecrackers and ripping up exam papers, the idea of Protest and Pass seems to have gone away.
Furthermore, the destruction of property was particularly emotional and very disappointing to current and past students. During both years of protests the media has portrayed them as being violent. However, last year did not see the burning of buildings. The escalation of meaningless violence and loss of the actual underlying issue are evident in the protester’s targets. At Witwatersrand, they targeted libraries, bookstores, and the Social Work, Psychology and Speech and Hearing therapy buildings. These centres offer free healthcare, social work etc. to people who cannot afford them, and attacking these buildings perpetuates the idea among the protesters they are following a pattern of violence for the sake of violence.
The South African youth is angry; their plea for better or even free education is feasible as it is evident the government does have the funds. However, institutionalised corruption within the government is rampant, and although a policy change may be a step in the right direction, each side is unwilling to compromise in pursuit of their own agendas. All of this leaves little hope for the #FeesMustFall movement and the biggest fear is if the fee rise is accepted this year it allows for large uncertainty regarding next year. If an 8.5% rise is accepted this year what stops the institutions from increasing it to their preferred 11%?
A more poignant question is, perhaps: can students separate the real of fee rises from the masque of prolonged racism and hold those in government truly accountable? What is lost in this call for free education is the fact that the government is infringing on everyone’s right to education regardless of their colour.