#FeesMustFall And The Inflating Price of Freedom
Monday, 19 October 2015, 7:46am. I’m woken by my phone alarm. I pick it up and, through gluey sleep-eyes, read: “It has been decided to suspend all academic activities planned and scheduled for Monday 19 October...”
I stumble through the house and clamber into my housemate’s bed.
“What’s going on?” She’s sitting up, transfixed on her computer screen. From the small speakers, I hear muffled shouting, singing, cheering.
In the early hours of that morning, while I’d been lost in the far reaches of my sleep, students throughout South Africa had initiated a nationwide protest against the ever-increasing price of tertiary education.
In hindsight, I should have anticipated it—it had not been a quiet year. An 11.5% increase in tuition fees for 2016 loomed, threatening to prevent many black students from returning, acting as a filter to perpetuate the racial and economic segregation that Apartheid had created. A number of statues and memorials glorifying ruthless colonisers, such as Cecil John Rhodes, were smashed, beheaded, discretely removed, paint-splattered or flung with human shit. There were ongoing negotiations and demands for name changes, symbolic changes – fundamental changes. People were growing angry and restless, tired of the chains of the past that still dragged them down.
Deployed and driven solely by students, the protests, coined #FeesMustFall, initiated a weeklong shutdown of universities across South Africa. This involved boycotting or disrupting classes, blockading entrances and exits around university campuses, and gathering peacefully but defiantly in hundreds and thousands to march, protest, sing and hold discussions.
Students occupied universities as days rolled into nights and then into new days. I saw young men and women grow delirious and sleep deprived, hungry and exhausted, willing to die in the face of oppression. Hoarse voices continued to shout and sing, reinforced by the wave of community. I witnessed an immensity of human resilience, determination and fire that words fumble to do justice.
The majority of our population is black, yet black South Africans are the economic minority. This is due to the complex aftermath that Apartheid brutally laid the foundation for. I grew up white in a country whose hegemonic skeleton favoured whiteness; I grew up in a place where blackness was a burden, a secondary appendage to further uplift the centrality and greatness that we were taught white skin embodied.
In 1994, the policy of racial segregation was outlawed, but this did not mean that being black equated to being free. Left with an overwhelming economic disadvantage, black citizens face a greater struggle to afford quality education, and as a result, a greater struggle to find quality jobs and opportunities.
Many students were arrested and injured by police who tried to terrify us into submission or coax us into violent reaction with teargas and stun grenades, water-canons and big guns. Dressed in faded blue with phallic rifles attached to their sides like extensions of their own bodies, the police didn’t look us in the eyes.
The people did burn things. They’re angry. They have been burning for centuries. They sing struggle songs that their ancestors sang when they were standing in the same place, in the line of fire, proclaiming that they were tired.
The protests culminated when then Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene delivered his medium term budget speech. Black students, white students, students of every racial and cultural hue and variation, stood together begging to be acknowledged.
We sat on the floor, transfixed in front of the fuzzy television screen as we wrangled with the antenna, watching live news unfold in front of us. The crowd grew restless while parliament simply continued without a flinch or mention of the shutdown. Rehearsed business as usual ensued and political leaders remained oblivious to the monumental situation right outside their doors.
For the first time in history, we saw the gates of parliament stormed as bodies flooded in towards the building. They were met with pepper-spray and shoved violently with shields. We watched as the screen split in half to show the tumultuous scene of terror and roaring defiance outside of parliament juxtaposed alongside the deadpan order of the politicians safely barricaded inside. The live newsfeed eventually ignored the budget speech entirely and turned to focus on the scene outside. Attention had shifted to the real issue at hand. It felt like victory.
We watched as students sat down outside the stairs of the parliament building, submissive, hands raised. They refused to move until riot police threw stun grenades directly into the crowd and chaos erupted. Hundreds of students began running through the streets, screaming. Police continued to lash out. Hands remained raised.
By the end of that week, thousands upon thousands of South African students from every walk of life had the wider world’s eyes on them. The government agreed on a 0% fee increase for 2016 and we attempted to resume normal life, but something was forever changed within us all. Something had been equally shattered by the betrayal we felt from the African National Congress – the ruling party that once led the country to liberation under the hands of Nelson Mandela – and the police that serve them.
It was a phenomenal achievement, but the fight has not come to an end. Protests will continue. We accomplished far more than a scrapped fee increase; a fundamental dialogue has been ignited and we have realised that not only are we dealing with a far wider, more deeply-rooted issue than excessive university fees, but that we as a nation and a new generation have the power to uproot it. The stagnating pool of comfort, ignorance and denial has been shaken up and unsettled, and the ripples will continue to reverberate until all who cannot afford higher education finally have free and quality access.
Amandla awethu – power to the people. Distilled with renewed hope, the youth of South Africa have come to realise that they can only be oppressed if they believe that the oppressor holds more power than the masses. We emerged from the smoke eternally stronger, but there is still a painfully long way to go.
The struggle continues.
*Although this is my personal recollection of a collective experience, this is not about me. I do not intend to claim the black struggle as my own. I do not intend to adopt black pain as my own, and I definitely do not claim the authoritative voice of a people who have lived and suffered through these experiences. I will not speak for those whose voices history has repeatedly smothered. This is not about me; this is because of me. I am inherently part of the problem. Fundamentally, involuntarily, I was born a shaky apology. This experience affects me in every way, and I can only relay it through my own eyes.
Cover and inset by Tshepiso Ferdinand