Everything Must Fall: Anatomy of South Africa’s Student Movement

Student leaders in South Africa fight for free education in an extraordinary protest despite threats of police violence.

Editor’s note: This film will be removed on October 9, 2020.

The #FeesMustFall student movement burst onto South Africa‘s political landscape in 2015 as a protest over the cost of higher education.

In October 2015, incensed by announcements of a 10.5 percent increase in tuition fees, students protested by forcibly shutting down Johannesburg’s Wits University, barricading doors and disrupting classes. It was part of a growing student movement in the country, which was demanding more fair and accessible education for all. 

“Our history is the nightmare from which we are still trying to awake,” says Shaeera Kalla, a student leader. “If you want people to have a shot at changing the social-economic reality that they’ve inherited, then you have to prioritise higher education.”

If we can have an education that is number one - Afrocentric where African ideas are at the centre and are important and are as over-emphasised as Western ideas are. Where we have African ideas being valued, African knowledge systems being valued, then for me that is decolonisation.

by Ntokozo Moloi, #FeesMustFall activist

Students were also lobbying against outsourcing – the university had chosen to hire support staff through company contractors rather than direct employment, meaning that many workers, when the policy was implemented in 2001, were paid less and lost benefits such as medical aid.

When Wits University Vice Chancellor Adam Habib’s efforts to contain the protest failed, he brought 1,000 police on to campus. There were dire consequences for the student leaders: Mcebo Dlamini was arrested and charged with serious offences, Shaeera Kalla was shot 13 times with rubber bullets; others, fearing the involvement of the state security agencies, were forced into hiding.

But the students saw no turning back. “There’s nothing more violent than poverty and we come from poverty-stricken homes and that is why we are fighting for free education. We say it like ‘oh we will not retreat, we will not surrender’ as if it’s a choice, but it really isn’t because if you do retreat, what are you left with?” says Ntokozo Moloi, a student activist.

Through the accounts of four student leaders at Wits University and Adam Habib – a left-wing, former anti-apartheid student activist – Everything Must Fall offers a glimpse into the inner workings of a student movement; one at times chaotic and unpredictable, but unified by its many demands: fees must fall, outsourcing must fall, poverty must fall, racism must fall – everything must fall.

Student leader Mcebo Dlamini protests at Wits University [Alon Skuy/Al Jazeera]
Student leader Mcebo Dlamini protests at Wits University [Alon Skuy/Al Jazeera]