Fees Must Fall – South Africa’s 2015 Student Protest

fees must fall

The 2015 Fees Must Fall student protest has ignited a long-overdue national dialogue about progressive change within the South African education system. EduConnect chats to the charming Gladman Mthokozisi Lukhele from the UP’s student group Uprising to get a first-hand account of what has engaged this nation-wide student movement.

South Africa’s 2015 student protest erupted like a congested volcano, oozing charged sentiments of frustration, objection, and demand for change through the entire country. What started as a student protest at Wits quickly ignited a revolutionary movement called Fees Must Fall, which has spread with the same haste and persistence as the Chapman’s Peak fires earlier this year.

This year marks various milestones for the dialogue of change within the South African university system; students are voicing their inexhaustible demand for transformation, such as developments within the curricula and academic representation (as campaigned by Rhodes Must Fall). With the recent upsurge, students have been succeeding in gaining not only national, but global attention for the cause of insourcing, and accessible, quality education for all.

The demand for free education of course encompasses many complex factors. Inflation, university budget constraints, and the struggle of NSFAS to collect bursary money form its debtors are all contributing to the bigger issue of current and future educational funding opportunities.

In a recent annual report, the NSFAS states,

“The reality of the matter is that the scheme has become bigger and more complex to administer, and the demand for financial assistance far outstrips the available funds, much of which comes from the already strained national fiscus.”

In other words, what has happened is that there are more and more students in need of financial aid, and the available funds are becoming increasingly strained.

However, the student protests have resulted in a wake-up call for everyone, in particular for the government and university management.

First Victories

On the 23rd of October 2015, following days of relentless nation-wide protesting, President Zuma announced,

“On the matter at hand, we agreed that there will be a zero increase of university fees in 2016. Discussions will continue, looking at broader issues than the fees.”

University vice chancellors and authorities have also acknowledged the severity of the situation and are, for the most part, trying their best to accommodate both the needs of the student body as a whole, as well as maintain an operating tertiary institution.

Despite the wide-spread belief that the university establishments have no plausible reason to raise tuition fees, it’s important to mention that the proposed fee increase resulted as an attempt to compensate for the low governmental subsidy, which only amounts to around 20% of the total university budget.

In an interview on SABC news, Wits Vice Chancellor Adam Habib stated,

 “In a lot of ways I agree with the demands of the students. I just didn’t think it was possible, because I wasn’t sure that the state would come to the party. What the students have done, is in 7 days, effectively, for 2016 at least, brought the state to the party. (…) I wouldn’t have imagined that possible 7 days ago, and the students have proved me wrong.”

He also confirmed that following a meeting with President Zuma, “the demand is to move towards free, quality education, for students in need.”

On the 7th of November 2015, UCT released a news update from Vice Chancellor Max Price, in which he announces that there will be a 0% increase in UCT tuition fees for 2016, as well as in housing fees for students from the African continent. Furthermore, UCT has agreed to insource 6 outsourced services.

In a recent press conference, Dr. Price acknowledges,

We support the national campaign for bringing fees down.

Price, whose son was one of the 30 protesting students that were arrested in Cape Town on 21 October 2015, has reportedly stated“I am proud of my students and I am proud of my son,”  and notes that if he could have, he would have joined the protest on that Wednesday.

With this powerful surge of awareness, it seems there is now new hope, new expectation, and new anticipation for the future of South African education. The protests are, however, ongoing and show increasing amounts of violence and vandalism on certain campuses. It remains to be seen if our South African students can maintain a primarily peaceful yet effective campaign.

A Casual Chat with Mtho

It’s the second week of November 2015, and the October tsunami of student protesting has subsided slightly. Though far from over, the protest has achieved its primary goal of a 0% fee increase for 2016. Gladman Mthokozisi Lukhele from the University of Pretoria has agreed to chat to us about his role in the protests and what he wants the movement to enable for South African students.

Mtho, as he likes to be called, is the spokesperson for the UP Uprising student group, which was founded in the wake of the Wits Fees Must Fall campaign, following a previously unsuccessful UP student march. Mtho’s political involvement in student matters can be traced right back to his first year at university in 2013. He is now in his final year at UP, studying towards a BA in Law.

fees must fall
Gladman Mtho Lukhele, UP Uprising spokesperson & co-founder.

With a friendly and sympathetic tone in his voice, Mtho tells us about his engagement in UP Uprising, a movement that lead over 18 000 students in a march to Pretoria’s Union Building.

  • Mtho, can you tell us about your role in the 2015 student protest?

“I am the spokesperson and co-founder of UP Uprising.”

  • When and why did you decide to get involved and support the movement?

I’ve always been involved in student politics, ever since first year. I like to promote political engagement and to educate other students about issues that happen on campus. We want a more liberal university experience, where students feel like they are being heard by management and authorities.

  • Do you consider the nature of the protest as peaceful?

From UP’s side it was a very peaceful protest. We said from the beginning that we wanted a peaceful protest. I am aware that it hasn’t been the case for all the universities. Having said that, I feel that certain incidents of violence and force were brought on by the frustrations. When you wait peacefully for hours on end to get a response from government, you have to turn to other measures. It is very unfortunate that government only responded once things got violent.

  • There has been a lot of footage of police brutality. Were there also police and state parties sympathetic to your cause?

“There was without a doubt police brutality and intimidation, particularly in Cape Town, with the implementation of grenades and tear gas. However, I need to commend the Pretoria Police Force, because they were there to ensure that the protest went smoothly, for example by stopping traffic for us. In one incident we occupied one of the residences and after talking to the police, they turned around and left. I’d say the students from Uprising have had a good relationship with the police.

  • Do you think that free education is a realistic goal for South Africa?

Yes, I think it is a plausible cause. Public and private institutions need to get involved. If the government can bail out the SABC, Eskom, etc., then surely it can bail out education. But we all need to contribute. It’s not only the universities and government, but student who do have the means should contribute to the cause. All of us.

  • Do you think there is a sense of entitlement from students who come from poorer backgrounds?

There might be a sense of entitlement, but that’s not the real issue. Our parents voted in 1994, in part, because of the promise of free education, and we expect that promise to be fulfilled. Many people have the marks to qualify for university entrance, but not the finances. The protest is less about entitlement than it is about students saying, ‘Allow us to emancipate ourselves. We have the marks. Give us a chance.

  • Some people say the protest has brought on unity. Others say it has brought on further segregation. What do you think?

I think it has definitely focused more on unity. This protest is about being human. It’s about understanding and supporting other human beings. In essence, it carries the message of Ubuntu.

  • Do you have any comments on the incident in Cape Town where white students created a barrier between the police and black protesters?

I was moved by those images, but also saddened. It showed solidarity, but also highlighted ongoing racial division. It shows that our job is not yet done, and invites the broader debate for South Africa to ask ourselves, ‘Are we really non-racial? Are we really this rainbow nation?’”

  • Have you had support from university staff and lecturers?

There were a few lecturers and departments who supported us, and who recognised that things need to change. UP has never had a protest of this magnitude, so it was quite a shock to everyone. We’ve seen a general attitude from our staff and lecturers that supports the transformation to a more liberal university.

As our chat with Mtho comes to end, we thank him for his humble input and ask him to think of three words that, to him, summarise the spirit of Fees Must Fall. After a short pause, he says, “Unity. Conscientise. Fertile.

Mtho’s concluding words echo throughout the following video, which has been taken from the Fees Must Fall News Facebook page. Check it out.

Opinions from Other Students

For the Protest

I think that the Fees Must Fall protests are a way for students to unite for an important cause and in a sense it helps to create an amazing feeling of community among the participants and followers. I think that as students, we have a responsibility to fight for these kinds of causes. Adversity often seems to be the strongest way to create union.

– Chrissi Khanya Preuss, 3rd Year Psychology, Rhodes University

2015 was arguably the year of the student in South Africa. Students across the country were forced to take action and stand up for not only themselves, but those still to come and particularly those who were denied the opportunity due to their financial status.

At the core of the matter is the need to break the cycle of commodifying education; universities should not be acting as businesses making a surplus of a billion plus each year. Free education in our lifetime needs to realised and is entirely feasible if we see it being made a priority by the relevant stakeholders!

Instead of joining the fight for providing access to quality education to all, university stakeholders and government turned on their own children. Instead of engaging in constructive conversations they sent the police on us. Peaceful students in Stellenbosch were brutally manhandled (speaking from personal experience) by private unnamed security and the SAPS, followed daily by Casspirs, and had the dog squad called on them. This, while management continued to reject invitations to address us while simultaneously tweeting that they were ‘constantly liaising’ with students. This approach to addressing the situation sadly led to certain incidences of necessary disruptions, as the Fees Must Fall movement was not to be disregarded or deemed a ‘fashionable trend’. We would not stop until we were taken seriously by government and university management.

The students of 2015 have made massive gains towards creating inclusive, future-focused and innovative tertiary institutions – much like SU has outlined in its vision 2030 – and they’ve done it in a fraction of the time that the higher powers would have. So next time you argue that perhaps you support the cause, but disagree with the way it was executed – consider that many have tried to achieve the same in the past with so called ‘civilised’ methods and have sadly failed where the students of 2015 have succeeded.”

– Tayla Faulmann, 5th Year MSc Physiological Sciences, Stellenbosch University[/su_spoiler]

Against the Protest

“The protests seemed somewhat pointless in terms of what was eventually gained. There was also destruction of property, including burning of tyres and portaloos etc was unnecessary and short-sighted. The only positive may be a long term wake-up call for the ruling government. An unfortunate aspect to the protests is how it separated many people. There was no grey area during the protest. You were either for or against it. The protest united the majority of the students for the week thereafter everything went back to normal.

– John Anhtony de Bruyn, Geology Honours, Rhodes University

My final year at Stellenbosch turned out to be a year full of excitements and anticipation, but also a year full of racism, politics and inequalities. I never saw my beloved Stellenbosch the same way so many ‘disadvantaged’ students had. I never experienced the issues they are using to substantiate their arguments. Yes, maybe the obvious fact is that I’m white and that I’ll never know what it was like to endure what happened to non-Whites during the Apartheid era, but it doesn’t mean that I my current social or economic status is by default much better off than theirs.

I backed up the movement, until they started stealing learning opportunities from other students. I understand the issue fully and back the cause behind the protesting. However, I don’t agree with some of the methods. The audacity to interrupt other students’ study sessions in designated study venues, disrupting tests/examinations which students have prepared so hard for, walking around campus and causing havoc in lectures… how is this justifiable to the cause?

I feel that there is now more segregation and division than ever before. I feel like these radical protests with other alternative causes have opened up old wounds and will persistently refer back to the days of Apartheid. When will the country and its people move forward? Let go of the past. Build a brighter future with the amazing potential of beautiful land has to offer us. Stop complaining about every little problem that arises and use it to better yourself and overcome challenges. I still have hope for this beautiful nation.

– Justin Alexander, Final Year BSc Sport Science, Stellenbosch University

Kind of for and against

The protest was definitely a good thing because more people benefitted from it than any disruption it caused. But I think that it actually did not unite the students. There was a lot of segregation caused by those who were for the protest and those who were against it. The protest ended some friendships!

– Kamogelo Moloi, 3rd Year Bcom Accounting, Rhodes University

I’m completely behind the original cause that fees are too high. But UWC’s fees are some of the lowest in the country. I felt like UWC students should’ve joined in the protests to show solidarity but not challenge our fees as well.

Regarding institutional issues, some points were valid, like the security on campus, or the problem with administration and registration. But students wanted Kovacs, which is a private res of campus, to be institutionalized. Kovacs is only 2 years old. Students were disrupting the entire campus and the vandalism was completely unnecessary.

After the 2nd week, I think most students just wanted to write exams. UWC’s exams were originally pushed back a week, from the 26th of November to the 2nd of December and were then pushed back further again because of the campus protests. This really upset me. It’s completely selfish.

– Earl Abrahams, 3rd Year Development Economics, UWC

I think that the protest was a waste of time, we lost valuable lecture time a week before the exams and then had to catch that time up during SWOT week. However the protest did unite students in South Africa and united us with other universities but a mere agreement not to raise the fees is not really a victory.

– Dau-Ming Ho, 1st Year Bcom Accounting, Rhodes University

A note from our CEO

“The balance of opinions in most pieces published on this topic is painstaking, but the overarching notion is quite plain – everyone is sympathetic to the cause, for reasons which centre on misallocation of state resources. But the bandwagon effect, coupled with the violence – which emanated from a very real cause – reduced empathy for some, and completely destroyed it for others.

We need to state explicitly that we condemn all forms of violence and destruction, regardless of the degree of our support in the cause.  This isn’t reflective of the whole, however, and we encourage those who are standing sturdy for what the world knows to be right.”

– Jason Basel, EduConnect CEO

EduConnect 2cents

Our coverage of the Fees Must Fall protests has been absent until now. While we understand our users expected us to voice a stance, our hesitation stemmed from our commitment to EduConnect’s core offering as a factual, practical information source. Now that the heat of the debate has somewhat cooled, we felt it appropriate to contribute. Apologies to anyone who condemned our silence!

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