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Student Activists in South Africa Reflect on the #FeesMustFall Movement Three Years Later

by Eva Rose Tesfaye on June 20, 2018

Students who were part of the #FeesMustFall movement gathered at the Apartheid museum to reflect on the movement, whether or not it was a success, and how to move forward. The debate was hosted at the George Bizos Gallery and commemorated the 42nd anniversary of the 1976 Soweto Youth Uprising.

#FeesMustFall was a student movement that took place across South Africa in October 2015 after an increase in fees allowed by the South African government. The increase was capped at 8% but it allowed the universities to decide how much the increase would be. Students who were already struggling to afford the current tuitions demanded that tuition would decrease instead of increase. The protest resulted in no university fee increase, over R600,000,000 in property damage and increased government funding for universities. The fees did not fall but they did not increase either. However, last year Jacob Zuma made a free education pronouncement which is seen as a huge accomplishment despite differing views on what went wrong.

The movement was also linked to the Fallist movement that called for decolonization of universities. This took place at universities around the world as well and is exemplified by the #RhodesMustFall movement at the University of Cape Town. This pan-African movement comes from dissatisfaction among black students and how they are treated by universities. It is connected with schools of thought such Black Consciousness, Pan-Africanism, and black radical feminism.

The aim of the debate was to highlight the objectives of the “decolonization project” as well as the shared ideals with the youth of 1976. These are increased access to affordable if not free, quality, higher education; dismantling exclusionary institutional norms and cultures; effecting staff and leadership changes to reflect society-at-large; and connecting this activism with a range of economic and political struggles for a more just South Africa, according to South African news site, The Daily Maverick.

The panelists were each given seven minutes to argue whether or not #FeesMustFall failed and give their opinions on where the student leaders are now. The panelists included Busisiwe Seabe, a Fallist and honours student at Wits University, Ntokozo Qwabe, a Rhodes Must Fall activist at Oxford University, and Funzani Mtembu, a University of Johannesburg financial investment graduate and Pan-Africanist, and journalism lecturer at Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Asanda Ngoeseng, who reflected on the movement as an academic.

Each person offered their thoughts and answers to the questions of, where are the student leaders now? Were they outsmarted by crafty hegemonic powers resisting talk of decoloniality? Have they have been co-opted and fragmented? And what happened to the sense of urgency of yesterday?

Seabe argues that #FeesMustFall should not be separated from the ’76 youth movement and that is simply a continuation. For her the movement fulfilled its promise with the free education announcement last year. She also emphasized the effects on the activists who bore the brunt of the state’s response.

“Khanya Cekeshe is serving eight years and Alma Monageng is under one-year house arrest. We have failed the activists,” she said.

Qwabe thought it was important to distinguish between the #FeesMustFall movement and the Fallist movement. “What Biko was telling me is that we were not fighting to be integrated into white society, we are authorities of our own struggle, we must not feel like we need to be accepted,” said Qwabe.

Mtembu agreed with the distinction between the two movements, due to the fallist movement beginning with #RhodesMustFall, the demand to take down the statue of white imperialist Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town. Mtembu talked about the transgenerational trauma and psychological effects that are passed down and heightened by the legacy of social and economic disparities in Post-Apartheid South Africa.

“White youth received the liberty to recreate themselves while black youth had the burden to go back home and deal with the burden of life,” said Mtembu.

Ngoeseng highlighted how the movement had failed those who gave her lives. As an educator she supports the Fallist movement by the educating her students about decolonial thought and gives them space to talk about their black experiences.

“We must begin decolonisation at high school. The challenge is how do we give students the capacity of thinking of the curriculum as something they own and are participants in creating,” said Ngoeseng

After a round of questions from audience, the moderator gave the closing remarks controversially to advocate George Bizos. George Bizos was a human rights lawyer who campaigned against apartheid. He was one of the lawyers in the Rivonia trial. He was not originally from South Africa as a refugee from Greece. Bizos cautioned the other panelists from calling every non-black person a colonialist and caused an uproar when he asked the provocative question, “Am I a colonialist? What are you going to do with the white people, kick them out?”

After the moderator calmed the room down, each panelist had a chance to respond to Bizos.

“My thinking revolves around blacks and the black condition,” said Mtembu, “Why do I have to think about whites? And how do I mobilise blacks who have been stripped of their land”.

“It is ok for us blacks to huddle up and love each other, it will assist with the femicide we are experiencing,” said Seabe

The panelists agreed unanimously that although the movement did not accomplished all its goals, it was still successful.

Featured Image via Wikimedia Commons

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Eva Rose Tesfaye
Eva Tesfaye has traveled around the world her whole life but thinks of Africa as home. She loves reading novels and watching plays (especially ones with people of color in them). She has a love-hate relationship with her big curly hair.