Students around the world: Johannesburg, South Africa

Mpho: “Private universities are autonomous and make decisions without interference of the government. Every institution chooses the amount of increment and the government will approve or deny.”

Spirit: “It’s not only enrolment fees which are increasing, but also medical health care, and all aspects within the institution. It all adds up and for many students it becomes a burden.

“Protest and pause”

You have blocked the school entrances for a week?
“There was a draft by the SRC (Student Representative Council) at Wits that planned a two hour demonstration. But then, a few days ahead, students decided to take radical action. They blocked the entrances of the university and no one could enter the building. The university was put totally out of order, no activity could take place and colleges were interrupted. The university recognized the protest and a few days later they closed for a week”, says Mpho.

Now you have examinations, but will you continue after that?
Spirit: “The protest was only part of the bigger struggle. Our aim is free education and that will not be implemented the next few months, it is a long process. We will undertake steps to set the country dysfunctional if our demands are not fulfilled. You cannot exclude students from education because they do not have the monetary means; it’s simply not fair. We will continue until the end. We have exams at the moment so everything is on hold, but after that we will find ways to improve education and institution policies. We will continue until free education is implemented.”

Spirit en Nthabiseng: “We must protest and pause at the same time.” (Laughs). “Protest and pause at the same time,…”(Repeated several times)

Spirit: “It would be contradictory to fight for education and not succeed in our own studies. Education is still very important. I have high hopes that Wits will go in the right direction. They dealt with outsourcing, as they did with fee increments. Now we are talking about resignation. There have been many negotiations between the student movement and the management. They realize we are serious and are willing to communicate. It works, but we have to take time to reach out higher goals.”

“Fees Must Fall was a trigger for some kind of revolution.”

Mpho, student Wits University

Student protest South Africa
© Ihsaan Haffejee

In October a large number of students in South Africa went down to the streets to raise their voices against a raising of university enrollment fees. This is only the beginning of a bigger revolution. Three engaged students of Wits University, Johannesburg explain their motives. 

Nthabiseng, Mpho and Spirit are members of a movement called Transform Wits. “We started two years ago but this year we received a lot of attention. We were part of the protests in solidarity with Fees Must Fall, but our agenda is bigger than that. We aim for decolonization of the curriculum. The university program is way too Eurocentric and does not represent the majority of the university population. We want to introduce more African theories and thoughts. Today we learn about Kant, Locke and Hobbes instead of African philosophers like Kwame Nkrumah, Steve Biko, Robert Sobukwe etc.”, says Nthabiseng. Mpho complements: “It is indeed a movement and so it is not structured as an organisation as such. What Nthabiseng is trying to do is draw attention to the fact that Fees Must Fall is a reaction against the fee increment, but there is a bigger issue, namely the transformation of universities of South Africa. It was a trigger for some kind of revolution.” “Fees Must Fall is not based on fractions, but on students who have the same ideals”, explains Nthabiseng.

Spirit: “There are other issues. Also outsourcing is a problem, which is the result of the fact that everything at the university is becoming more expensive, not only the enrolment fees. Externally contracted workers at the university (for example cleaning staff and maintenance workers) do not have the same benefits as people working for Wits. They are paid less, they do not enjoy the same health care and are they are living in harsh conditions.” “Sometimes they are not even allowed to sit on the grass or at the same benches that students use,” says Mpho, “the protest was not only #FeesMustFall, but also #NoToOutsourcing…”

Spirit: “…and free education! We want free education! The majority of the black people in South Africa lives in poverty and don’t have access to education. Accessible education can break the cycle of poverty. This is one of the topics that occupies us most. The protest was #FeesMustFall, not #FeeInrementsMustFall. We struggle for free education and we are a movement that will continue until the end.

How is the school system organized?
Nthabiseng: “The increase in enrolment fees only affected higher education, which is based on private and public institutions. Public institutions don’t have enrolment fees, but the quality of education there is highly inadequate. Private schools, on the other hand, rely on fees. They don’t receive state subsidies and secure their funding independently. The enrolment fees especially affect high school graduates who want to access a good quality university education. The financial implications of studying are so drastic that they are often kept from enrolling and having the opportunity to develop and advance in society.

Spirit: “Students can also apply for a scholarship, but that does not cover all the costs. It is a problem if you are capable to enrol higher education but forced to drop out because of financial implications. This is for me the biggest issue. The majority of black people lives in poverty and I think it is unacceptable that people do not enjoy the same opportunities as the white population because of high institution fees.”

“While we complain about fee rises, they complain about parking.”

Mpho, student Wits University

Did the ANC fail? 

Nthabiseng: “This country does not belong to its leaders, nor to us. It is in the hands of white capital and foreign multinationals…”

Mpho: “…I don’t know where she was going (laughs), but I would say the ANC is a group of people who created a political party. That is all. The South African people gave them leadership, but since 1994 until today, there has been no justice. This brings us close to the apartheid situation, where capital is still in the hands of a small group of people and where redistribution has not taken place. That is why we need to problematize the ideology of the ANC and realize that the living conditions of the black community have not been improved. The ANC is a Marxist- Leninist party, or at least they claim to be. The ideology remains purely abstract, but in reality nothing has come of it. So now, in 2015, people like me and my sisters want to draw attention to this. But then I am a member of the ANC (laughs).

Time for a change

Is it correct that South Africa seems to be ready for a change and the revolution could be a break through?
“Yes, this is the first mass mobilisation by students in the democratic era of South Africa”, says Nthabiseng.

Mpho: “The students of Tuan University of Technology (TUT) have been protesting for seven or eight years against the fee increments. But they never really drew any attention. When we took action, the rest of the country followed. So it is something big and it is definitely not the end.”

Nthabiseng: “I don’t want to stop before we get what we want. The democratic state in South Africa has never seen anything like this and their response give us a post-apartheid sentiment. The violent reaction of the police to predominantly black protests is typical. The state must handle these things differently. They cannot oppress us now, even if they were suppressed in the past.”

Who is to blame?
Nthabiseng: “I blame the current government who failed to accomplish a change. Not the ANC, but the South African government.”

Spirit: “The black race has been suppressed since the beginning of time. It is a cycle. We are born in a system of oppression and now our generation needs to make sure we go forward. So who is to blame? I think many people at the same time, like individuals. For example I would like to have seen a bigger march from all universities. If all students would come down to the street simultaneously, we would probably see things change in a heartbeat. We would be able to accomplish much more. Instead of pointing fingers at certain people, I think that many aspects share the blame. I do also blame the government because nothing has been done to improve the situation.”

Mpho: “A lot of stakeholders are at the genesis of the situation in which we find ourselves today. Personally, I think we need to be pragmatic. Instead of accusing colonization, we should look to the current government, occupied by the ANC since 1994.”

Spirit: “Our perceptions are not the same as those of our parents and grand parents. A lot of things have changed since they were young. I was born in 1984, in a state where apartheid no longer exists. Naturally I think differently from my parents. As students, we know what is best for our country, right? I think students have more power than we think. This is our moment, to unite us and not only in South Africa, but around the whole world. We are not the only country where students protest. If we raise our voices the whole world would reap the benefits. Not only in terms of education, but also health care, employment, crime and so on. We have the power to heal the world.

What concrete steps will you take? 

Nthabiseng: “In 2017 there will be national elections in South Africa. Within Fees Must Fall we are considering to boycott the elections if concessions were not made. There are many of us; if every student takes part of the boycott it can really affect something. But in every revolution you can never really know what you are capable of or where you will be at any moment in time.”


How do you organize a movement of students spread all around the country? 
Spirit: “Everyone has the same ideas. We have leadership (read this free guide know more skills required to become a successful one in detail), but we take decisions together as a collective student organization. It is a student movement and the students fuel the protest. Everybody takes part in the process and that creates a connection. There are several movements with different leaders, but we are one family. We listen to each other, protect each other and share the same ideas. We are going in the same direction and are very disciplined. We may be crazy and enthusiastic but we are still intellectuals. We learn from history and protests in the past. This makes everything easier for us. Everybody listens to everybody. Everybody is on the same page and so it is very easy to get things done.”

“The power of social media during this revolution cannot be downplayed”, says Nthabiseng, “ after we heard about what happened in Cape Town, students in Johannesburg were more thrilled to revolt. It motivated us to do more, to show the government how angry we were. If you look at footage of different universities who come together to protest, it touches you, so social media really is integral to the movement. The same tools used during the Arab Springs are being used in South Africa.”

Chief negotiator between students and the University.
© Mpho Anthony Ndaba

Do white people take part of the protests?
Mpho: “77 percent of the Wits university population is black, so it makes sense that the majority of the movement is black. Most white students do not take part in the protests because it is not in their interests. They enjoy white privileges; while we complain about fee rises, they complain about parking. It is logical that they do not participate. In my opinion they are welcome to join us, but this is the battle of the black population being suppressed by race and class.”

Nthabiseng: “We cannot underestimate the attendance of white students. Some joined out of solidarity, or donated food, drinks and money during the protests. Those who did not participate simply see things differently. One classmate admitted she did not participate because the problem did not affect her and she did not want to propagate the black race. This girl did not see why she should come and I think that was brave. She was daring to be honest about her point of view about a subject that was thrown in her face. The reactions of white students varied. Some were angry because we disrupt things, others say we need to do what we think is best. To us it does not matter if there are white participants or not. It matters that people hear us and this is the only thing that counts. We have had a lot of support and not only from white people, but also from other ethnic groups. This is not a racial battle, nor a political one; it is about students. There was a lot of solidarity and we appreciate that.”

Do you have any sponsors? 
“Anonymous donors gave sponsorship during the protest but also university alumni and organizations like Amnesty International and BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions). Crazy enough, the ANC (African National Congress) also donated. The donations are private and anonymous which ensures the neutrality of the movement”, says Nthabiseng.


Are the problems in South Africa due to the government that does not succeed in implementing the policies?
“This is a very complex question,” says Mpho, “South Africa has never been decolonized. The implementation of democracy in 1994 means that African people replaced white people but the system never changed.”

Nthabiseng: “The promises of democratization in South Africa in 1994 have never been materialized. Now, twenty-one years later, we are at a point where excuses are no longer accepted. These protests are nothing new to us. The consequences of the government’s inefficiencies are clear to see and there have been a number of protests in the past about all kinds of issues. This is the beginning of something big.”

Is this a continuation of the protest in 1976?
“It is different though, the student protests in 1976 were battles against the apartheid regime, for example against language use in schools. This revolution is about the curriculum within universities. The discussions in 1976 were also about states subsidies for schools. We are fighting for something different. We want free education, no fee increment, and so on”, says Nthabising.

Mpho: “We are still fighting against white domination, as they were in 1976. The superiority of white people has been protected by the same system as back then. The only difference is the fact that it was 1976 and it is now 2015. It is just numbers.”

“The power of social media during this revolution cannot be downplayed.”

Nthabiseng, student Wits University

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