What now for South Africa’s #FeesMustFall movement?

At the University of the Witwatersrand, where protests began, students navigate the future of a fractured movement.

Final-year BA student Busisiwe Seabe addresses a crowd of protesters outside the university's Great Hall [Cornel van Heerden/Al Jazeera]
Final-year BA student Busisiwe Seabe addresses a crowd of protesters outside the university's Great Hall [Cornel van Heerden/Al Jazeera]

Johannesburg, South Africa – At the far end of a narrow corridor is a door marked NC119. It opens to a small dorm room on Wits University’s leafy East Campus. Inside, the blue and green curtains rustle each time the door is opened.

“We’ve moved in here for the time being,” says final-year BA student Busisiwe (Busi) Seabe. “We’ve taken this entire floor.”

Undeterred by the university’s recent move to have private security guards physically evict protesters from the concourse of Senate House – home to Wits’ #FeesMustFall movement since it began last October – Busi and her fellow “Fallists” have set up their new de facto headquarters here out of necessity.

The single bed in the corner of the room is piled with bedding, the floor lined with suitcases and plastic bags. Stacks of paper, laptops, cosmetics and stationery cover the surface of the wooden desk.

The Fallists sleep where they can.

“We are squatting,” Busi explains. “These are rooms that belong to fellow comrades of ours in a sense.”

While most residences at Wits close at the end of the year, some remain open during vacations to house students writing deferred or supplementary examinations. Since many Fallists missed papers and assignments because of the protests last year, they spent the December vacation period at the university – studying and planning for a new round of protests.

The university did make concessions for protesting students, allowing them to write deferred papers free of charge. But because it did not make provisions for accommodation, many protesters from out of town found themselves sleeping in lecture halls, labs, libraries, and even on the floor of the Senate House concourse. That was until university management called in security guards in riot gear to evict them and barricade the space from all but official visitors.

Riot police in front of Wits University’s Great Hall watch over a protest taking place [Cornel van Heerden/Al Jazeera]

Last October, #FeesMustFall brought thousands to the concourse of Senate House. But just three months later, the movement seems numerically impoverished – just 50 students arrived to occupy the same area on the first day of registration, blocking entrances, barricading elevators and singing songs of struggle.

The students successfully brought registration to a standstill – for a day. But then the university called in security and the students were evicted.

Eighteen-year-old Tshepiso Modupe, a former first-year clinical medicine student who had just completed her last supplementary exam earlier that day, was among those sleeping in Senate House. “We were staying there because we don’t have money to stay [in university residences] …,” she explains. “I personally have no funding at all.”

That is why #FeesMustFall is so important to Tshepiso.

“In December, we ended up living in classrooms and lecture rooms and things like that. If you want to take a bath, there is nowhere to bathe, so you borrow a student card and go to the swimming pool, and you swim,” she says.

“We were already seen as hooligans, as savages, and with this we were basically being reduced to the very same savages that we were called. But, for a lot of us here, if we don’t fight … we have no choice but to go home.”

Home for Tshepiso is Bodibe, a small village in the North West province, where her mother is the family’s only breadwinner.

She works as an administrator at a youth detention centre, and her basic salary supports Tshepiso, her younger brother and four extended family members, including two other cousins who are also in school.

Tshepiso’s first-year fees for clinical medicine cost R100,000 (around $6,290). She was lucky to get a bursary, but now needs to repay it after she decided to study Politics and African literature instead.

“I still have no idea where I’ll get the money,” she says.

“I was apolitical previously. I didn’t care, I was unbothered.

“And now I notice that when the group of people are fed up with the conditions in which they are living, and fed up of the government that is governing over them, they actually do have power,” Tshepiso says.

“I used to think that even if we did do something it would just be a few of us and it doesn’t matter. But now #FeesMustFall is something that is known around the world. And as much as we are constantly being fought and attacked, we are still growing as a movement.”

Second-year Wits student Tshepiso Modupe behind a steel barricade set up to keep protesters out of the Great Hall [Cornel van Heerden/Al Jazeera] 

Free education for all or free education for the poor?

Within weeks of igniting in the classrooms and corridors of this university last October, the #FeesMustFall movement had spread to campuses nationwide, marched on parliament and to the presidential seat of power at the Union Buildings, and put enough pressure on the government to force it to retreat on plans to increase university tuition fees for 2016.

“Social action achieved in seven days what we vice chancellors had been talking about for a decade,” says Wits vice chancellor Professor Adam Habib, from his spacious 11th-floor office in Senate House with its view across Johannesburg.

He attributes much of the success of the original movement to the fact that as well as being multi-class and multi-racial, “they were organised beyond party and ideological divide”.

“It was this fact, more than any other, that brought thousands of students and their supporters on to the streets at parliament and the Union Buildings,” Habib says.

The vice chancellor agrees with students that the government has been complacent about the significantly underfunded education sector. But the protests, he says, have “shaken up” the government.

“The fact that they made R6.9bn [around $430m] available between October and January says a lot. There had never been R6.9bn made available for any piece of social policy in three months in the last 21 years,” he says.

Wits students and staff gather to protest militarisation of the university and access to free education [Cornel van Heerden/Al Jazeera] 

In terms of wider financial transformation of the sector, Habib believes that some change is possible, but asks: “Are we looking for free education or for free education for students in need?

“Do I think free education for the poor is possible? Yes. Do I think it’s possible tomorrow? Possibly not. Do I think it’s possible within a reasonable time in the near future? Yes,” Habib says.

“But I don’t think it’s possible without trade-offs. And trade-offs can have huge societal implications …. Let’s understand the implications so that we don’t replicate the same divisions we’re talking about ending.”

Party over movement?

Just three months since the first protests began, and with a new academic year about to commence on February 8, the movement has already fractured, with ideological divides and political factionalism leading to feelings of abandonment and betrayal of trust within the student group.

While the core group of Fallists still actively protesting on campus are wary of the ruling African National Congress (ANC)-aligned Student Representative Council (SRC), who they feel abandoned the protests before the full mandate of the movement had been achieved, the SRC feels that it has been excluded from a movement that has capitalised on its initial hard work but taken it in a different direction from that originally intended.

The core group of Fallists who now run the movement hoped the 0 percent fee increase would galvanise support for their greater goals, including insourcing of university cleaners and free education for all.

But the majority of the student body, represented by the SRC, considered the 0 percent a victory in itself, and decided to halt the protest action and to continue with final exams.

Wits cleaners protest in solidarity with students calling for free education [Cornel van Heerden/Al Jazeera]

“Unfortunately near to the end of the year, many students wanted to write exams. And many who are not politically conscientised didn’t really care if we had come to an agreement on outsourcing with the university or not, so a decision was taken to go with what the majority of students wanted,” explains Shaeera Kalla, the former Wits SRC president, who was one of those at the forefront of last year’s protests.

“I personally wanted to continue the protests until we had reached an agreement with the university, because … we had bargaining power when we were still closed. The minute you open you lose all your bargaining power, so it’s politically silly,” she says.

“But the democratic centralism binds you to any decision. And so the SRC, including the incoming SRC, made a decision to end the protests and change the tactic, write exams and then reconvene.”

The Fallists believe the SRC chose to stop protesting after caving in to pressure from their mother body, the ruling ANC.

“They chose the party over the movement,” Tshepiso says. “We said to ourselves, you are not leading us in the right way. If you want us to continue with exams then you are not with #FeesMustFall.”

Wits University cleaners stand in solidarity with students protesting for free education [Cornel van Heerden/Al Jazeera]

#FeesMustFall or #Access?

Shaeera Kalla’s successor as SRC president, Nompendulo (Ulo) Mkhatshwa, sits outside a cafe in the now mostly vacant Senate House wearing a tank top and green army cap bearing the ANC insignia. She talks about the principles of non-racialism, non-sexism and support for the working classes – principles, she says, of the ruling party – that helped usher in the original protests.

But she disagrees with those who say the SRC cannot be critical of the ruling party. The two have a “complementary, contradictory” relationship, she explains, adding that “[as young people] we ought to be able to help it steer its thinking”.

Ulo and the SRC have largely distanced themselves from the core #FeesMustFall movement. Each group now works on protests and projects independently of the other, with the SRC – together with the university – launching a campaign called #Access. It aims to raise R10million (about $630,000) in a month, and hopes by the end of February to have enough money to settle the historic debt incurred by Wits students in the “missing middle” – those too poor to afford their fees, but not poor enough to qualify for government support.

Discussing the split, Ulo says: “It became very antagonistic and SRC members were just not welcome in particular spaces. The kind of things that were thrown at us – ‘you’re sell-outs, you know nothing about being black, you know nothing about being poor, what do you know about the struggle of the black child, what do you know about the struggle of the poor child’ – it was so offensive to many of our comrades because they said you don’t even know where I come from.”

Back in Room NC119, second-year BA student Kensani Masisi – who refers to herself as “a typical middle-class black” – says she is upfront about her own level of privilege but is committed to achieving free education for all.

She says the SRC tends to align the successes of the movement with its own political allegiances.

“The movement, and students as a whole, feel like the SRC have delegitimised themselves in a way. They have sort of … put the students behind them and them in front of the students, when they should actually be one,” she adds.

“… This isn’t a SRC movement, this is a student movement.”

Protesting students plant cardboard tombstones in potplants near the Great Hall at Wits. The words say RIP and show the amount of debt they owe the university [Cornel van Heerden/Al Jazeera]

Ulo says the SRC’s “biggest fear for the student movement is infiltration by society”.

“The students’ mandate is free education. But we know society wants land, we know society wants economic freedom. There’s a lot that we want as society. We know others want complete revolt, a new governance structure and regime change essentially. And that’s fine, but start your own protests, mobilise your own people and start from scratch,” she says.

Kensani disagrees. “#FeesMustFall is not just about fees,” she argues. “It’s about changing the entire structure of the state, of the country. It’s more than just about even going to university, it’s about the social construct that we live in, the type of society that we live in, and how it sort of blockades us from certain opportunities and certain ways of life.”

Tshepiso agrees. “Fees are the starting point. When I first got here I thought that Wits was bliss because I saw a bunch of white people sit with a bunch of black people, having lunch and hugging. And I didn’t realise that this is one of the most segregated places ever.

“Because when you come from a village and you hardly even know English and you are a straight-A student and you get to med school, it’s almost as if whiteness is a trend …. And so decolonisation starts in the mind first, where you look at yourself in the mirror and say, actually I’m fine perfectly the way that I am.”

And Tshepiso believes decolonisation requires the entire education system to be restructured. “Because you’re not just teaching doctors, you’re teaching black people. And white people. Everyone needs to be conscientised on the state of the country.”

A Wits protester smeared in fake blood pretends to be dead as a commentary on the university killing the future of poor South Africans who cannot afford their fees [Cornel van Heerden/Al Jazeera]

‘The institution is sick’

Danai Mupotsa is a lecturer in the African literature department and part of a group that helps to support and nurture the Fallists, many of whom are her students.

“I tell this to the students, that you’ve been taught to believe that thinking happens here,” she says, pointing to her head. “But what is that thing that makes your stomach tense, what is the thing that holds you back?” she asks. “And that’s the thing we need to talk about.”

Protesters call for the university to ‘demilitarise, decolonise, democratise’ as riot police guard the entrance to buildings [Cornel van Heerden/Al Jazeera]

Danai and her fellow concerned academics participated in a protest theatre event during registration week that aimed to remind university management what is at stake when private security is allowed to breach the sanctity of a university space. Brandishing signs that read “demilitarise, democratise, decolonise”, they sang old struggle songs, hung “Free Education” banners and stood aside as the student protesters pulled down a barricade blocking their access to the university’s Great Hall.

“I think what needs to be better understood about the demand for free education now – besides arguments that it’s unreasonable and it has no rationale to it – is that it’s a broad conversation about what the university means and it’s a conversation the university should have had the integrity to have before students had to be the ones to push it,” Danai says.

“It’s not simply the case of money or fees, although that’s part of it. But we’re talking about historical debt that students inherit that is also structured into teaching and learning, and pedagogy and the structure of the environment.

“What’s impoverished about the university’s understanding is that they have decided to pick on black students and black staff as the problem. We’re talking here about the phenomenological whiteness of this institution, which says the institution is fine and we are the sickness, whereas this institution is sick ….

“What I see out of #FeesMustFall is that commitment to do the work, and to have compassion – a political compassion – for each other, even when we disagree and are angry.

“The least the university can do is have the humility to be self-reflective and do the same.”

Wits students and staff gather to protest against militarisation of the university and for access to free education [Cornel van Heerden/Al Jazeera] 

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