This past week, tens of thousands of mainly young South African university students protested against proposed fee increases next year. Their actions under the #FeesMustFall banner signalled the beginning of a protest movement that will eventually go far beyond tuition fee increases, inequality, transformation and injustice to a potential challenge to the political system itself.
South Africa has seen protest actions before, and we have seen them rise and then fall, but there is something different in the political air now. It is an undercurrent demanding change, demanding that we do not simply continue along the same old path. It says that we can, and will, change the world again unless someone, somewhere is prepared to listen and take real decisive action.
To be sure, these protests may appear to be about tuition fees, but what lies beneath is poverty, unemployment, tardy and uncaring service delivery on so many levels, broken promises, and the denial of opportunity. It is indeed an uprising in the making.
The deep and enduring irony of these protests, sparked mainly by a tuition fee protest at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) that quickly spread countrywide, is that it was a Student Representative Council (SRC) aligned with the African National Congress (ANC) that sparked a nationwide protest at the arrogance and uncaring attitude of the ruling party in government.
As deep frustrations and rising anger over so many issues, so many broken promises, and so many empty undertakings boiled over, it was clearly far more than about student tuition fees – not when university staff were joining in, not when housewife mothers joined the protests, not when middle-aged people of all races flooded radio talk shows with support and encouragement for their children and the children of their friends and neighbours who had finally had enough and found the courage to say “this far and no further”.
While the Wits SRC initially attempted to distance the ANC from the anger and the frustration, it could not hold the line. Students at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Stellenbosch, Fort Hare and elsewhere showed no such confusion and laid the blame at the door of the government as well as university authorities. The final expression of frustration saw students of all political hues storming the gates of Parliament itself on Wednesday, October 21. That, even from the deepest darkest days of apartheid, is an unprecedented act – a symbolic storming of the Bastille.
The violence unleashed by the State against the student protests – particularly, but not exclusively, outside Parliament – served only to demonstrate the bankruptcy of the regime in dealing with legitimate grievances and its reliance on talk shop after talk shop and lists of soon-to-be unfulfilled promises.
The violence of the police was out of all proportion and did not go unnoticed in either Washington or London, among others. The United Kingdom experienced similar tuition fee protests in 2010 where significantly less violence against the protestors prompted a political outcry, an inquiry and a new set of rules as to how police were allowed to deal with protestors. The level of force used against the students outside Parliament was so excessive that it demands criminal prosecution. The State’s early intentions (since abandoned) to charge arrested students with treason was banana republic-level absurd.
Of course, there is no excuse for violence from the student side either – that undermines the clarity of their objective and muddies quite significantly the moral standing of the protests. The anger and frustration cannot be directed at passing motorists and the rights of those outside of the protests – no barriers or force or intimidation – because then there is no difference between the actions of security elements and the protestors at the moral level. No one can demand rights while refusing to grant others theirs.
We need to recall the student uprising of 1976 and the line in the sand that the series of protests drew. It did not produce an immediate outcome – the end of apartheid would still take many years – but what it did achieve was to divert the course of history away from one path to a completely different one. The importance of these protests nearly four decades ago is enshrined in a South African public holiday on June 16.
The events of this week may well signal another sea change in direction. The regime is currently in something of panic mode, and its ‘leaders’ – who should be talking to the students – are busy slipping out of Parliament through a back door. The government will, however, regroup and call its local cadres and apparatchiks to defend the ruling party. The students will lose momentum, go home to study, and rethink positions, and the dust and smoke will settle.
However, nothing is going to be the same again. It has once again taken students to show us we do not need to sit back and take whatever is thrown at us, that we have power in numbers and that we can once again be the instruments of change.
Free education, free housing, justice for all, and a place in the sun in a new democratic South Africa was always going to be a hard ask. But slowly, over the years, what was lost was the ideal and what was betrayed was the promise – not because it was unfulfilled in so many ways, but because it was abandoned.
Now we have leaders of supreme arrogance, zero humility and a belief in political immortality. Corruption is rife, issues like Nkandla are ugly festering political boils that can be lanced but are not, while promise after promise remains just words. Poverty, unemployment, marginalisation and a general lack of direction in dealing with these issues at government level are major problems, while the government clings to outmoded, outdated State-centrist ideas that have no prospect of solving anything.
The student protests of this week are not going to last and they are not on their own going to promote fundamental change. But when we look back in 20 years’ time they will emerge as a crucial and perhaps the key catalyst for change.
The Strawberry Statement is a non-fiction book by James Simon Kunen that chronicles his experiences at Columbia University in the US from 1966-68, particularly the April 1968 protests and takeover of the office of the dean of Columbia by student protestors. It was made into a film that achieved cult status in the 1970s.
Gary van Staden (Senior Political Analyst)