The date is 17 October 2016, just little more than ten months after I first graced the hallowed yet thorny grounds of Nelson Mandela University. After a fairly peaceful sleep, we woke up to the blasting sounds of stun grenades flying through the air in the sweltering weather. The university had just triggered an interdict after rolling mass action under the banner of the #FeesMustFall protests which were sweeping across university campuses with the aggressiveness of an erupted volcano.
What I woke up to that day was not what I had envisioned when I was hallucinating about retiring my black school jersey riddled with stitches to enter into a new world with endless opportunities, as sold to me by the university prospectus.
The genesis of the protests is a highly contested subject matter (as with the ‘faces’ of the protests), that has divided the student populace in half between the suppressed voices from historically black universities who have been inhaling teargas since the turn of the century and the newly minted revolutionaries with vast media coverage.
As much as I would have loved to but the purpose of this piece is not to narrate the events that unravelled but is to give a post-mortem reflection three years on. It is a reflection on the lives of those that went to the picket lines for a just cause only to end up with criminal records, only for the comrades next to them to be rewarded with political careers as gallant ‘FeesMustFall’ activists by the same band of oppressors they fought against. It also meant to invoke a sense consciousness to those that made institutional history in their respective campuses by pushing the wheels of the revolution in favour of insourcing scores of workers only to reverse those gains by wielding their political capital to put themselves at the dinner table.
It would be a fallacy to say there has not been much progress achieved since the first #FeesMustFall protests erupted, as it is the protests that ultimately led to the declaration of free education by President Jacob Zuma on the eve of the 2017 ANC Nasrec Conference.
Even though the protests were a necessary precondition to agitate the declaration, it would be naïve to attribute the victory solely behind the hashtag but it should be seen as a product of continued struggle within the terrain of higher education that stretches back many generations of activists.
As it was when the African National Congress (ANC) won the first democratic elections in 1994, when an elite class of bureaucratic bourgeoisie emerged whilst thousands of Umkhonto Wesizwe combatants who fought among them returned to the country to be welcomed by poverty on their door steps.
The protests have produced many ‘leaders’ who went on to carve political careers for themselves through the collective plight of South African students. The University of Wits the ‘main’ site of struggle of the #FeesMustFall movement (as a result of institutional privilege), has seen its former leaders like Nompendulo Mkhatshwa and Fasiha Hassan named on the ruling ANC electoral party lists
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) named other FMF leaders in their lists, Vuyani Pambo and Naledi Chirwa. It is not incorrect for these young leaders to make the list. The only thing that raises questions is the institutional privilege that has seen ‘leaders’ of the protests only coming from one strata of South African universities. If South African political parties were genuine about wanting the voice of South African students to be fully represented at the legislative arm of government they would have been inclusive also of the historically black universities such as the universities of Fort Hare and Zululand.
Post the #FeesMustFall protests as it was after the Bantu Education Act was extended to ‘black’ universities, what they are producing is still undermined but what is different now is that it is undermined by people who are claiming to be fighting against it. Robert Sobukwe once said ‘Fort Hare must be to black people, what Stellenbosch is to the Afrikaner’. Until total equality is attained in the higher education sector in South Africa, education is not free!
***Asemahle Gwala is the SASCO Claude Qavane Deputy Chairperson and a political science postgraduate student at the Nelson Mandela University.
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