It is true that the revolution has a tendency of eating its children. This was true during the struggle against apartheid and has not changed even in the post-1994 South Africa. During apartheid comrades and freedom fighters that were at the forefront had to make extreme sacrifices and as a result they suffered greatly. Some lost their families and others lost their lives so that South Africa could one day become a liberated country. One would expect that post-1994 under a black government there would be no need for any South African to go through experiences that are reminiscent of the apartheid era but this is not true. Students who participated in the Fees Must Fall (FMF) campaign are still suffering the consequences of fighting for their right to a free and decolonized education. Despite the extreme violence that students were subjected to during the protests many are still faced with criminal charges, suspensions and others excluded from universities.
The FMF protests were the most politically charged student protests that South Africa has seen post-1994, students all over South Africa united and called for free and quality education. This call was not welcomed well by the government and the universities, this resulted in extreme violence, intimidation, suspension and arrests all in the name of silencing the protests. But because no one can stop an idea whose time has come the students did not stop protesting, they continued to fight. The resilience by the students resulted in the leading political party (ANC) adopting free and quality education as their policy. This means that free education will eventually become a policy of the government. As we speak the roll out of what is to become free education has started in certain universities and institutions of higher learning. This did not happen through miracles, it is a result of students who decided to fight for what they believe in.
This fight was not without casualties. Bonginkosi Khanyile has recently been convicted on charges of public violence‚ failing to comply with a police instruction and possession of a dangerous weapon. The dangerous weapon in question is a mere slingshot, what damage would a slingshot possibly do to a policeman wearing protective armor? It is the ridiculousness of the charges that demonstrates that there is a clear agenda of silencing student leaders to ensure that the collective voice of students is thwarted. I am still attending trial together with other comrades from other universities who were also in the forefront of the protests.
These charges and concomitant verdicts will have serious implications on the futures and careers of the many thousand students who participated in the protests. If I am found guilty I will not be able to practice as a lawyer (I am currently a law student), this is because to be a lawyer one needs to have a fit and proper certificate (must have never been convicted). This is true for almost all other professions. It is very difficult to secure a job if one has a criminal record. This is an injustice. In a democratic country that boasts about equality and justice it is wrong for people to be punished and denied prospective amnesty for fighting for their rights.
Many more students who were not criminally charged were suspended and some expelled from university. Their expulsion does not only affect them but their families and communities. As it stands there are not enough black people who have access to higher education because they are poor but our universities still have the audacity to expel these students. What is more so concerning is that both the universities and the government have publicly stated that they support the struggle for free education yet they are the first to punish those who stand up and choose to fight for free education. This hypocrisy is sickening and happens when the students have consistently pleaded with the universities and the government to grant amnesty to FMF activists because the continued persecution of these activists has a direct consequence of affecting families and contributing to poverty.
Through the continued persecution of FMF leaders the universities and the government are trying to silence the voice of the black youth. If we as young people and as students allow this intimidation strategy to continue then we will not only be allowing universities to stifle our ideas but we will be letting down all the other students who have made sacrifices to ensure that free education becomes a reality. As students we must unite with a tenacity that will bring fear to both the university and the government. We must, through action, make a call for all criminal charges to be dropped against FMF activists. We must make a call to the universities to revoke all suspensions and expulsions that are related to FMF protests. We must demand that criminal records as a result of FMF related activities must be cleared. If there is no positive response to these demands we must organize and take it to the streets. Failure to do this means that we would have failed all those brave young people who have put their lives, careers and futures on the line for the realization of a collective goal.
***Mcebo Dlamini is the former President of the Wits SRC.