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#FeesMustFall activists demand amnesty for students and workers charged during the protests

Cape Town – Fees Must Fall activists from different universities across South Africa marched to parliament on Wednesday to demand that the President grant amnesty to students and workers chargedw during the #FeesMustFall and #EndOutSourcing campaigns.

Different student activists narrated painful stories of being subjected to court cases while having to deal with a demanding academic schedule. Read below the full memorandum received by the Justice Minister Michael Masutha:

MEMORANDUM TO THE SPEAKER OF PARLIAMNENT REGARDING AMNESTY FOR FEES MUST FALL ACTIVISTS

Parliament might already be aware that there is a lot of unrest in the country regarding the issue of granting amnesty to all students and workers who are facing criminal charges because of participating in the Fees Must Fall protests. We as students use the word amnesty with reluctance because the word suggests that there was an offence in which one must be pardoned for. We categorically believe that when we decided to protests it was for a just cause and the violence that ensued as a result was because of the provocation by the police. In a country like ours which still has fresh wounds from apartheid it is unbecoming to treat people, especially young black people, who fight for what they believe is their right as transgressors. The kind of treatment that those who participated in the protests are experiencing is reminiscent of the apartheid era and what is more concerning is that it is happening the under the watch of a government that claims to be for the people, a black government.

We all know the importance of education in a developing country such as ours. Our parliament has in many instances stressed the crucial role of education in eradicating existing inequalities and all the vestiges of apartheid. It would therefore be contradictory to have a government that claims to value education yet punish those who engage in a struggle to have access to education. We have a firm belief that our government will support and assist us in this noble cause that young people have identified as their generational mission. We appeal to the conscience of the members of this parliament to stand with us. Below are a list of demands that we have identified as the cornerstone should we achieve our generation mission of a free quality and decolonized education.

1. We call for a TRC equivalent that will address and possibly find amicable solutions to the problems that emanated as a result of the protests. This TRC is important because it will give both students, the government and the universities a chance to reflect and engage in an honest dialogue on how the protests degenerated into violence and how that violence could have been curbed. The Fees Must Fall protests were a sad state of affairs that should never happen in a democratic country and through dialogue we can begin to set out strategies on how not to find ourselves in a déjà vu moment. We therefore think that a platform that will comprise of all the parties that were involve in the protests is a good place to begin. The TRC will also give students and universities the opportunity to outline their vision of what they imagine higher education to look like in the future.

2. We call for the President of the country to use his prerogative powers to grant amnesty to all students and workers who are criminally charged, convicted or arrested as a result of participating in the protests. The arrest of these students has the direct consequence of not only affecting individual students but of affecting the indignant communities that they come from. In a country like ours where the cracks of inequality run deep the government has a responsibility at the very least to ensure that it does not exacerbate already existing inequalities. Many more students who were not criminally charged were suspended and some expelled from their institutions of higher learning. 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. We therefore call for this government to assist us in ensuring that the government revokes all the expulsions and suspension that are related to the Fees Must Fall protests.

3. The number of cases that concern sexual violence in our institutions has been increasing in alarming rates. What is even more alarming though is how our institutions and the department of education has been complacent in dealing with the matter. It is true that sexual violence is a societal problem but where it finds expression in our institutions of learning (where we spend most of our time and regard as home) the department and the government has to act immediately. Recently a student committed suicide because the university failed to take action against an offender. We cannot allow such behavior to find expression. We therefore call for universities working with the government to facilate a comprehensive response to the scourge of gender based violence.

4. The National Students Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) which was developed as an interim intervention to ensure that access to education is widely opened has proven to be ineffective as a permanent measure. Throughout the years NSFAS has not been able to facilitate access to all the South African students who are academically deserving but who are without the financial means to access institutions of higher learning. The administration of the scheme has been poor and ridden with corruption which has the direct consequence of denying a deserving prospective student a future. I also believe that the scheme is dehumanizing in how it requires students to run pillar and post every single year to prove that they are poor. The recent centralization of the scheme has complicated issues even further. The centralization of the scheme does not take into account the peculiarities of the different institutions and this affects how the funds are distributed. With the centralization of the scheme there has been an increase in complaints of students who applied but did not receive responses. Other students have not received their allowances and have not been able to buy food. This is a huge problem because the issue of food security affects how a student performs. No student should have to worry about course content and where their next meal is going to come from at the same time. The centralization of NSAFS has exacerbated the challenges of the scheme and made its inadequacies even more obtrusive.

5. The issue of accommodation is one that also needs the urgent attention of both the institutions of higher learning and the government. The accommodation that is currently provided by these institutions has limited capacity. It cannot accommodate all the students who come from remote areas to study in the towns and cities. Students are therefore left with no choice but to resort to private accommodation which charges exorbitant amounts which are not tantamount to the quality of accommodation they offer. These private accommodation companies increase rental prices at whim because they know that students are desperate and will settle for anything. At times the rental fees of private accommodation are so high that bursaries and NSFAS refuse to cover them. This leaves many students without any other alternative but to sleep in the streets, libraries and toilets. No student should ever have to study and be expected to succeed under such conditions. The universities and government cannot allow a situation where students become hobos, sophisticated hobos. The government has a responsibility to intervene. The intervention can be in the form of buying or expropriating derelict buildings in towns and cities, revamp them and turn them into student centers and accommodation. I believe that the issue of accommodation is linked to the broader land question that the country is currently grappling with. Solving the broader land question will make it easy for the government to solve the accommodation crises that students are currently facing.

6. The democratic government has failed to build enough institutions of higher learning which will accommodate all academically deserving students. The stampedes that we see at the beginning of every year are evidence of this fact. The government therefore has to invest in building more institutions. This begins by ensuring that the former teaching and nursing colleges are reopened and functional. The government must also direct its resources to the TVET colleges. Often these colleges are treated as subsidiaries of university which should not be the case. The infrastructure of these colleges should be improved such that there is no huge influx of students who flock to universities because of poor infrastructure of TVET colleges. The government should also direct more resources to ‘former black universities’ such that they have the same status and infrastructure as ‘white universities’. The existing discrepancy between these universities reinforces the divides that were created by apartheid. A government founded on values of justice and equality should not allow this to happen these discrepancies to find expression.

7. Structural racism still exists in these institutions of higher learning. This is why the students of the University of Cape Town demanded that Rhodes Must Fall. This is why students throughout the country students were calling for the decolonization of education. Black students feel that their universities do not reflect that they are universities in an African continent. The content of the curriculum has to be reformed in such a way that speaks to the present realities of our society. University management is still white and male, two decades after apartheid there is no reason why universities are still exclusively ran by old white bearded males. The government and the association of vice chancellors ought to work together to ensure that transformation and decolonization becomes possible. The names of buildings, architecture and iconography in these universities must reflect the aspirations of those that it offers education to, black people. The current figures and names that are mounted on university buildings are figures of people who have tormented and violated all that which the name ‘Black’ stands for while they were alive. The figures they represent are figures of people who truly believed that to be Black was a liability.

8. It is true that institutions of higher learning must enjoy a certain degree of autonomy. This autonomy is important because it creates conducive conditions for academic freedom which is the backbone of all institutions of higher learning. I want to believe though that this academic freedom is not absolute, it must always be balanced with the role that these institution ought to play in society. This is to say, besides the provision of knowledge to individuals, institutions of higher learning ought to provide knowledge that will contribute in the betterment of our society. The curriculum of the university should be structured in the way that reflects where we are as society and where we want to go. We must break the cycle that turns students into consumers and customers. There is a growing tendency of running universities in accordance with business principles. Under these circumstances students become less interested in knowledge for the benefit of society but become interested in the utility which their studies have on the open market.

9. The issues that are raised above are not new Students have been raising them and they have not been acted upon. Students have not just been raising these issues but have also engaged in research and provided models on how they can be addressed. Failure to address them is an indictment on the government and the universities. The demand is simple we want a free decolonized education.

We hope that the Speaker of Parliament and all the members of parliament will welcome our memorandum and will all join force to ensure that our demands are met and acted upon.

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