Five years after the student protests: what fell and what rose
Those who were at the forefront reflect on the movement that shifted the national conversation on inequality
In mid-October 2015, students all over SA spilled on to the streets to fight for level playing fields in the tertiary education sector, a game-changer moment in the country’s history. But five years later, some of those who took part have become cynics, saying the transformation journey is still in its infancy.
The Fallist Movement, characterised by #RhodesMustFall, #OutsourcingMustFall, #SexualHarassmentMustFall and #FeesMustFall, set the stage for much deeper conversations around inequality in the country.
Busisiwe Seabe, 25, who ascended to student leadership at Witwatersrand University in 2016, said she was still suffering the consequences of protesting.
PODCAST | The ‘hijacking’ of #FeesMustFall: Fasiha Hassan’s story
“I’m still attending hearings and court cases because of Fees Must Fall. I have a breathing problem because of the teargas and my eyes were affected. The movement took a lot from me. I’m still suffering from PTSD in some way or the other. I wouldn’t march again. The state doesn’t care how many of us march. It’s become desensitised to our forms of protest.
“That day at Union Buildings was the first time I encountered teargas and a rubber bullet. That thing burns. That was the first time I got shot. I didn’t even feel it at first because my adrenaline was so high,” said the Critical Diversity Master’s student.
The nationwide Fees Must Fall protests began around this time five years ago. It has been a journey of trauma, sacrifice and hardship according to those who were a part of the revolution. TimesLIVE sat down with FMF activists to reflect on what has changed in the fight for free, decolonised and quality education.
Seabe said the decolonisation of the education system was happening, but slowly.
“We now clearly know who the enemy is. We should remain genuine in the call for free and decolonised education. Violence is our everyday language; the violence we encountered from the state that was mitigated to students showed the normal character of this country,” Seabe added.
In October 2015 then-president Jacob Zuma announced that university fee increases would be frozen.
“We agreed that there will be a zero increase of university fees in 2016‚” the president announced during a massive and chaotic student protest at the Union Buildings.
This news broke the movement into two; some were satisfied and ready to go back to class, while others wanted more.
“That’s when the real conversation started. We want an African-centred curriculum, one that would be centred in African epistemology and incorporate African methodology of learning.
“We want an education system that is accessible and inclusive of minority communities such as the LGBTQI+, not just as a slogan but in the literature we engage. At the heart of it is affordability.
“We want real freedom in our universities, as we consider them a microcosm of our society,” Seabe added.
We want an education system that is accessible and inclusive of minority communities such as the LGBTQI+, not just as a slogan but in the literature we engage.Busisiwe Seabe, former student leader
For Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) student leader Moeletsi “Juju” Sekgololo, the #FeesMustFall memory brings back anger. He is bitter when he remembers the march to the Union Buildings on October 20 in 2016, saying student leaders from so-called prestigious universities “hijacked” the march, causing conflict among the students.
“Those from the likes of Wits wanted to claim hegemony over the revolution. On that day we filled up buses and met at Burgers Park. We marched all the way to the Union Buildings. While we were busy with the protest at Union Buildings, these guys from Wits came with an Iveco [van] with cameras and the media, they wanted to claim the movement as their own. That’s when the tension began, a conflict ensued, we started chasing them.
“We have been striking, we started Fees Must Fall. But prominent universities have a tendency of putting a face to something and owning it. The movement belongs to no one; it’s about the struggles of poor students,” said Sekgololo.
Seabe, who joined the movement as a logistics coordinator at Wits, recalled how the situation spun out of control as they were attacked by fellow students.
“Pretoria was a fish market, a mess. While I’m busy distributing water and food, chaos breaks out and the first people to disappear are our leaders. They were nowhere to be found. I’m trying to call them and no one answers. One guy comes to me and tells me they saw them at the Gautrain on their way to Johannesburg.
“Other universities were agitated by our presence; we were considered the university that hijacked the movement. They even wanted to burn our buses down, we were considered the crème de la crème.
“It was so chaotic that members of the public started lootings shops. The last batch of students made it to campus around midnight. Our leaders were waiting for us with the announcement from the president,” Seabe said.
Prof Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of Wits, found himself on the wrong side of history when students rejected the proposed 10.5% fee increment for the year 2016.
The students demanded that he listen to them to a point where he sat on the floor with them at Solomon House.
“Their demands were important, legitimate and noble. I wanted to listen to them, but I couldn’t make the fees go away, I wasn’t prepared to take away the standard of education. Fees had to increase to keep the quality going.
“I agreed with them, but not the way they went about it. As long as we are burning universities, we create an unstable and unproductive environment,” Habib said.
Their demands were important, legitimate and noble.Prof Adam Habib
The outgoing principal said the biggest challenge universities face is the over-politicisation of student issues on the campus.
“You can’t have the formal political parties too involved in campus issues. Parties cannot compete for SRC roles. That on its own is a sign that something is wrong about this country. This means the students take instruction from outside,” Habib added.
He blamed the government and said it was complacent about the struggles of students as it had, for years, declined per capita, the funding of students through NSFAS.
“The Zuma announcement failed to address the problem of the missing middle. The students who are too rich for state funding but too poor to pay their own fees. The vast majority of students at Wits are the middle,” he added.
Political analyst, diversity and transformation expert Asanda Ngoasheng said the movement helped the country get to the root of the problem, though it could not fix things overnight.
“It got people talking about a lot of things that they didn’t talk about, such racism, sexism and white privilege. It had a huge impact on forcing universities to reconsider their role in the present day. It’s not a new concept, it was discussed in many countries in the postcolonial era, we just wanted to get along and have peace.
“Every generation sees the world differently. As long as you have old people developing a curriculum without including young people, you create a mismatch. Racism, inequality didn’t start because of the movement or stop when the protests stopped; they continued,” she said.
Ngoasheng said the criticism meted against students regarding the nature of the protests was unfair.
“People protest based on what’s available to them, it’s a circumstance thing, not a choice. They should protest in the ways that are available to them.
“Students were not the only people who were traumatised. We were all in an environment where we knew change had to happen, but the emotional work of change gets placed on the oppressed. We have to constantly put up a trauma show. It’s emotionally exhausting, mind-numbing and belittling. It’s triggering and frustrating,” she added.
Asked how the activists from five years ago were now leading the youth and representing their issues, Seabe felt it was up to the student leaders of today to take up the cause.
“We should remain genuine in the call for free and decolonised education. FMF is a revolution that is happening. It’s still happening even though there are no protests. Those who are still in the system need to continue and find new ways to fight.”
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