Photo: Mujahid Safodien

South African students rise up to demand free education

  • October 24, 2015

Education & Emancipation

In the biggest protests since the end of apartheid, students have shut down universities and forced the government to abandon a planned tuition hike.

“I find myself suddenly in the world and I recognize that I have one right alone: That of demanding human behavior from the other. One duty alone: That of not renouncing my freedom through my choices… I am not a prisoner of history… I should constantly remind myself that the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence.”

– Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1952)

Over the last week, South African students shut down 17 universities in an attempt to prevent proposed fee increases. The initial focus of the national shutdown was on students’ demands for the removal of proposed fee increases. Now, this has shifted towards the fundamental goal of the acquisition of free education, to end outsourcing of support staff and other issues that fall under the call for the transformation of the institutional culture and operational structure of higher education establishments across the country.

The official national shutdown began on Wednesday, October 21, and targeted both the government and university leadership. In all, this has been one of the biggest mass demonstrations since the anti-apartheid protests of the 1980s.

The National Shutdown Collective, which comprised students from 19 different universities (many of whom are members of recently formed student movements such as the Rhodes Must Fall Movement, Open Stellenbosch, the Black Student Movement and UPrising, to name but a few), spearheaded the awareness and mobilization campaign through various social media (see #FeesMustFall and #NationalShutdown) and by mobilizing various student networks.

The mass demonstrations, occupations and disruptions that began this week were sparked by the suspension of all academic activities at the University of Witwatersrand (WITS) in Johannesburg on Wednesday 14 October. The shutdown was a result of student protests for both the rejection of the proposed 10.5 percent fee increase, and for the decrease in current university fees. It generated a national conversation and mass student mobilization, linking the issue of fees to the broader student struggles for the decolonization and radical transformation of universities that has been unfolding since the Rhodes Must Fall Movement began in February at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

From barricading university entry ways and occupying university administration buildings to mass protest marches that shut down city centers, the broadly supported student movements have catalyzed a nationwide uprising that aims to radically reinvent the existing higher education system, which continues to privilege the white male to the complete detriment of the historically oppressed black child.

The current university model is unsustainable and was always going to be challenged because it simply does not take seriously the lived realities of the majority black, poor South African population. The university business model does not respond to the epic disparities of financial means of the citizenry. According to the CEO of New Leaf Technologies, Paul Hanly, only 1 percent of the population can actually afford the approximately 120,000 rand ($8,800) per year in university fees. Most students are only able to attend university through financial aid programs, most of which are lending schemes with high interest rates.

Historically white institutions continue to represent the white male colonial subject, both in terms of financial means as well as in terms of the intellectual project of furthering white patriarchal capitalism. At the university currently known as Rhodes, over 65 percent of the student body are black, but at least 80 percent of the universities senate — the most influential governing body — is white.

Yet despite the painfully obvious urgency of the issues voiced by students and the peaceful but resolute character of student demonstrations, executive university management and national government officials still fail to take students seriously. When the students at Rhodes university presented their demands to senior management on Wednesday, the latter responded with empty rhetoric, surface level engagements with the demands and feigned consideration, failing to make official commitments to any course of action.

When the Minister of Education Blade Ndzimande received the student demands, his response was to condescend and banalize the pressing issues, remarking on different occasions that students do not possess the analytical skills to be taken seriously and that “students must fall.”

On Friday, October 23, when students from universities in Gauteng province marched in historic numbers to the Union buildings to demand a government response to national demands, President Jacob Zuma had thousands of students waiting hours past the communicated time of his address, before cancelling the planned public conference. Instead, a private media conference broadcast was held where the president made a non-statement that conceded a zero percent fee increase for 2016 but blatantly side-stepped all of the other demands.

The obfuscating response of university management and national government was expected. What completely flipped the script in the eyes of student activists was the disproportionate level of force used by the South African police against the student protests. Whilst students had in some cases burnt tires in a controlled open environment, they were largely peaceful. Nonetheless, the police responded with a disproportional use of physical force, dragging students on the ground by their collars, using stun grenades and rubber bullets, deploying chemical water cannons and firing live ammunition warning shots.

When students from the university currently known as Rhodes joined Eastcape Midlands College students — no more than 150 in total — in a demonstration outside of the EMC campus on Monday, October 19, somehow stun grenades and chemical water cannons, creating an itchy sensation on contacted skin, were seen as an appropriate response to the small non-violent crowd. The EMC students were calling for the release of the monthly allowance provided by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme that students have not received since March.

On Wednesday, October 21, students in Cape Town marched to parliament and entered the building to confront the national leadership where they were met with brute force by the riot police. Six of the students arrested for trespassing were “provisionally charged” with treason” — a charge that has not been used since the apartheid regime targeted the anti-apartheid leadership. The South African police later released the students with a warning and denied having enacted the treason charge.

The criminalization of student activism reflects the gravity of this political moment and shows how the shifting of generationally-embedded ideologies is a real challenge to the existing relations of power. If the national government and university management are so quick to mobilize police violence in response to the rising voice of student movements, they are clearly threatened by the emergence of a new popular politics.

As it stands, students are not satisfied with the response by the government or university administrations, and disruptions of the academic year will continue until the lily-livered leadership actually takes students seriously and is committed to approaching the demands creatively. To quote one of the students, it’s now a case of “total transformation or death.”

In the spirit of Frantz Fanon, the South African students are demanding human behavior from those in society who both benefit from historically embedded but socially constructed privileges. The elder generations have become comfortable and complacent and have in many ways renounced our collective freedoms through their elitist and kleptocratic political choices; choices that have maintained the racialized, patriarchal capitalist order of things — choices that allow the black, poor South African child to remain a prisoner of the country’s colonial and apartheid history.

The recent student mobilizations, not only of the last two weeks but over the last nine months, are so potent and historic because — unlike the elders who refuse to transform the order of things — the movements are re-imagining what a truly transformed African university might look like. They are calling for the invention of a social order that actually reflects the dynamics and realities of the people who live in this country. As such, the students’ actions are making real leaps towards a more just society.

Mikaela Erskog

Mikaela Erskog is a Master’s student in History and a member of the Black Student Movement at the university currently known as Rhodes.

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