#feesmustfall: Learning from protests past

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Can today's students learn from the protests of the past?

Follow and join the ongoing conversation on education, access, transformation, language and the Constitution. Contributions in any language and format are welcome: naomimeyer@litnet.co.za.


It is a rare moment when we realise that history is being made, something that will define the society we live in, that will fundamentally shake up the political status quo, albeit not immediately, and will have a lasting impact on the lives of individuals and their families. It is most often with hindsight that we are able to observe and identify historic moments, such as the Sharpeville massacre, the 1976 uprisings or the 1985 state of emergency. When we are in the midst of history being made, there are hundreds of voices and pressures that exert influence on how such history will be made and remembered in the future, and it is within the making of history that leadership is defined and refined.

There can be little doubt that the student protests over a ten-day period, and particularly over the three days when the parliamentary precinct was breached, followed by a mass march on Luthuli House and culminating in the protests at the Union Buildings – all symbols of seats of political (if not economic) power – were a massive redefining of democracy in our work-in-progress democracy. The students won their key demand, a 0% increase in fees for 2016, not by backroom negotiations with politicians, not through writing letters to newspapers, and certainly not through the ballot box, but by taking to the streets in numbers across the country, and for relatively sustained periods (ie for longer than a three-hour, one-off march or protest action).

A year ago, Blaise Compoare tried to extend his 27-year presidency in Burkina Faso by changing the country’s constitution, only to be forced out of office by mass public protests. The year before that, tens of thousands of Ukrainians brought about a change in government when their elected president, Victor Yankovych, declined to sign a trade deal with the European Union. We still have images in our minds of the occupation of Tahrir Square by thousands of Egyptians that brought down what appeared to be a well-settled dictatorship.

While our own recent student protests may not have been on the same scale as any of these, or may not have resulted in a regime change as these did, they revealed the limitations of a democracy where voting takes place every five years, but where the voices of ordinary citizens are generally not heard in the intervening years.

The victory – winning the key demand for a 0% fee increase – has not only buoyed the students, but has also won over numerous sceptics and naysayers, including even middle-class parents who now stand to benefit from this concession.

It is at this point that the student movement will be challenged, and will be required to show levels of maturity and leadership that their youthfulness may not have allowed them to hone in lesser struggles.

Students have linked their own struggle against high fees to the exploitative practices of outsourced labour which particularly provides more menial services such as cleaning, gardening and catering. Many academic staff have come out in support of the students’ demands for fee increases to be scrapped, for institutional change within their universities and for more moral labour practices in a society in which fundamental inequality separates the majority of citizens from a relatively privileged minority. This four-way alliance – students, workers, academics and parents – will now be tested sharply. Students have won their key demand, but the workers who supported the students have not won theirs; do students continue protesting till workers are in-sourced and granted the same benefits as other institutional staff? With there being a 0% increase in fees, can universities afford to in-source labour? After all, one of the major reasons for outsourcing is precisely to reduce labour costs to the institution. With not even an inflationary increase in student fees, will academics and administrative workers – many of them allies of the students – be faced with a 0% increase in their salaries in 2016? What about parents who may have been won over to the students’ cause: Will it be more than a tiny minority who would support their children’s ongoing strike against the academic programme and final examination schedule if this has further financial implications for them through the loss of an academic year?

Then there is the reality of the different tertiary institutions, some historically rich and which have been at the forefront of the student struggles, and many historically poor and predominantly black tertiary institutions. The student uprisings have been largely organic and copycat in nature, rather than a coordinated effort across all institutions with recognised leadership (unlike, for example, the Committee of 81, where schools during the school boycotts of the ‘70s had a degree of coordination between them).

The conditions for major divisions between institutions and within institutions (between students, between students and workers, between students, workers and academics, etc) exist and will become increasingly apparent as students are challenged by university managements to return to the academic and (even postponed) examination timetable.

In addition, there are divisions along party political lines with parliamentary tensions manifesting themselves within student politics too. The student victory has been a major embarrassment to the ruling ANC that has tried to co-opt the protests, and through its politically aligned student organisations will seek to own or determine the direction of the protests. They will meet strong opposition from EFF and DA supporters, some of whom control SRCs at various tertiary institutions. Then there is the overwhelming cry for non-partisan politics, for a student body that is not aligned to any political formation, and that takes on, promotes and defends issues of importance to students without having to genuflect to a political sugar daddy. This will be a major challenge as tempting overtures will be made by all major political contenders that would want to ride this wave of protests and gains.

Within the student body and leadership itself there will be those genuinely committed to changing the institutional status quo at great cost to themselves (including the loss of an academic year if necessary); there will be pseudo-radicals who will push the envelope with militant demands, language and behaviour but who have little strategic and tactical nous; there will be others who are ambivalent, wanting to do the right thing by their (perhaps newly acquired) political commitments and yet, on the other hand, aware of the potential costs to their families, and then there are those who simply do not care, who want to get on with what they came for: to get the degree and to have a party while doing so. There is also the challenge of students in their final year leaving, or wanting to leave (and so have a keen interest in writing exams and demanding their right to do so), versus the majority of students who may still be able to catch up if any academic postponements take place.

These divisions and the myriad of voices emanating from them, as well as the temptation to pursue more demands on the back of a major victory, present the student leadership at each institution and the collective leadership across the country with major challenges, but also with the opportunity to show what this country has been lacking for so long: leadership! It is in this crucible of 2015 student struggles that the next generation of leaders will be born.


Universities, language, access, education, and student protest – follow the debate.


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  • Die logiese uiteinde van #feesmustfall gaan die afskaffing van Afrikaans in tersiêre instellings wees. Dit is waar die eerste en ergste druk vir kostebesparings gaan wees.

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