A social media user dubbed the violent protests of October 2015 by university students across South Africa #FeesMustFall season one. This was fitting, as the fees protests of the last few years have followed the design of a typical TV drama series, with main and supporting cast members who star as villains and heroes. The only difference is that in this real-life drama, there’s no director to shout “Cut”, no editing and no special effects. There’s no fake blood when cops fire their guns, no “Take five” after tear gas turns one’s legs to jelly, and no body doubles.
On the morning of Wednesday 10 March, 35-year-old Mthokozisi Ntumba went to a clinic in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, for a consultation. As Ntumba left the clinic, he was shot at close range with rubber bullets, allegedly by the police. The police’s main targets were protesting students from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). The protesters were demanding that all students be allowed to register for the 2021 academic year, even if they owed Wits fees. Historic debt is the term used to describe this kind of debt, which prevents many students from registering.
The latest round of student protests started in the week that Wits reopened on Monday 1 March. While most of the students from the institution have been able to register for the academic year, others have failed to do so. At the University of Johannesburg (UJ), for instance, the university insists that students who owe fees must sign an acknowledgement of debt (AOD) form, thereby committing to pay at least half of the outstanding debt in order to register. Universities have trust funds, which are usually managed by student representative councils (SRCs), to pay registration fees for academically deserving students who cannot afford to pay these fees. But the trust fund is not a bottomless pit of money that can fund every student.
Cutting short their academic journeys halfway through a diploma or degree is not even an option for many poor students; hence we saw #WitsProtest trend last week. #WitsAsinamali is another hashtag that quickly trended on Twitter. It is Zulu for “Wits, we don’t have money”. The events of the last few days, from Wits students burning rubble in their protest on Johannesburg’s Empire Road next to Wits, to the death of that innocent bystander in Braamfontein, kicked off the latest season of #FeesMustFall. The coronavirus pandemic lockdown didn’t cancel, but merely postponed, this season. So far, the focus has been financial exclusion of students because of historic debt, but after Wednesday’s senseless episode, more demands are being made by protesters.
By Friday 12 March, students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) had joined the protest by marching to the university residence of the vice-chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng. One student leader there made the demand of immediate free education. The South African Union of Students (SAUS) has drawn up its own list of demands, while threatening a national shutdown across university campuses on Monday 15 March. Among the demands made of higher education minister Dr Blade Nzimande are the clearance of historic debt, laptops to be provided to students and a full return of the academic programme to campuses. Many institutions, like UJ, have decided to continue online learning and teaching for the first semester of 2021.
Many of those watching these protests are taxpayers, who have made it possible for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) to fund students who have a household income of up to R350 000 a year. The so-called “missing middle” students, who are from households considered “too rich”, do not fall into NSFAS’s funding bracket.
As if this funding headache, which no Grandpa or Panado tablet can soothe, were not bad enough, a 2017 proclamation made by Jacob Zuma, then president of South Africa and the African National Congress (ANC), compounded the leftover issues from 2015. Zuma announced fee-free higher education from 2018 during the ANC’s 54th elective conference. Never mind that the Heher Commission had found that fee-free tertiary education was not possible. Not only did Zuma give many poor students hope that fees had indeed “fallen”, but many believe that it implemented a promise made in the 1955 ANC manifesto document, the Freedom Charter. The document is to the ANC what the Bible is to Christians. It states that “education shall be free … [and] higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit”.
The government has, in recent years, backtracked from Zuma’s announcement, as higher education is not free across the board. The matter of the “missing middle” persists. A trigger-happy police service still exists. Wits, UJ and UCT still have student debt (which now sits at the grand sum of R1 billion in the case of Wits). The universities don’t have money for additional funding. The 2020 academic year presented them with cost-cutting measures, such as the cancellation of graduations, which led to a saving in funds which would have been used for catering, security and the like. But other expenses were created last year, including buying data for students when university lectures went online. Wits and UJ resolved to refund residence students, given that many residences were unoccupied for most of the year; however, that did not do away with other expenses, such as cleaning and security at those residences.
In this season of #FeesMustFall, we will see the re-emergence of bouncers, police and other security personnel to protect university property, students and staff as the protests gain momentum. We will hear of long meetings between university management and student leaders. We will read social media messages of support for students, university authorities and even the government. Our television screens will broadcast visuals of fresh protests, and irate protesters will refuse to be interviewed by the embattled eNCA.
This season, unlike previous ones, though, will present an additional obstacle for the student protest movement, which may or may not be a godsend for universities. Classes have gone online since last year across many universities, meaning that only a fraction of student protesters will be available to march for change this March. The “own goals” of previous seasons of #FeesMustFall will weaken the protest movement this year, as well. In fact, that has already started to happen. The initial demand of not financially excluding students has seen various student bodies adding to their wish lists for the higher education minister as if he were Father Christmas. Problematic beliefs and egos will also derail many of the protests, as a sexist, homophobic or racist student leader doesn’t magically become a refuge for feminists or an advocate for gay rights when he rocks up at a fees protest. Lastly, police will still be trending for all the wrong reasons, because decades of police brutality will not be unlearnt in just a matter of days. Rubber bullets, nyalas and water cannons will still cause injury if one is lucky, death if not.