What lies ahead for the #FeesMustFall movement?

File picture: Henk Kruger/ANA

Black liberation, institutional reconstruction, the treatment of womxn, language at historically Afrikaans universities as well as teaching epistemologies are bound to be focal points for this year’s #FeesMustFall movement. Black students have never left their homes with the intentions to protest but the conditions that they find themselves in at university lead up to their resistance. Black South Africans go through everyday experiences of oppression and to make matters worse, universities as products of society resemble all of the South African atrocities.  

Back in 2015, students had a number of concerns expressed under the banner of the #FeesMustFall movement and aimed at wide ranging institutional transformation. Over the past few weeks, the focus has been on a singular facet of the movement, the fees. It is a response to the concern raised around access to higher education for students from poor and working class backgrounds who will land free education for their first year at varsity through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). The theme on fees and free education became dominant in the movement because it was about access, which often tends to be at the fore of pressing national issues.   

However, this narrow agenda does not reflect the yearning for substantive transformation, as a result, students will continue their resistance to fight for institutional and societal transformation.

Writer and activist, Sisonke Msimang terms the movement as “the death of compromise in South Africa”. She notes, “in the conventional model of democratic politics, you put forward an idea, debate it and then work to build support for your view” instead “radicalism and intransigence are increasingly replacing compromise as the go-to instincts of the body politic.”  This Fallist approach comes into existence because we can no longer accept circumstances as they are, or as Frantz Fanon puts it, “we revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe”.

Let us recap back to 2007 when white students from the Free State University urinated on food and forced Black staff to consume it. How about in 2014 when white students from the University of Pretoria (UP) painted their faces Black, padded their buttocks and dressed-up in domestic workers’ attire, in an act to mock Black women. It was also reported that at UP, student residences were separated in terms of race. Not so long ago, the movement ‘Open Stellenbosch’ emerged from the University of Stellenbosch challenging the use of the Afrikaans language as a means of communication in classes, residences and in staff meetings at the university.  

Universities have not yet dismantled colonial structures, especially the historically white institutions. Last year, the South African Reconciliation Barometer reported that white South Africans indicate higher levels of denial of past injustices and lower levels of support for redress. Black students continue demanding to be treated fairly, and with respect. #FeesMustFall came as a result of the failure to address inequality and the lack of a decolonization project. Such a project would address the university culture that tends to underrepresent Black people and lags in urgently addressing social transformation. It would then pave the way for an array of black professors to be employed at higher education institutions. The organisation Africa Check in 2015 reported that only 303 professors of the total number of 4 034 were Black – a sad 14% of all the professors.

This university culture, without a doubt stems from the day South Africa was captured by colonists. The history of higher education in the country dates back to 1829 when the South African College was created. It enrolled English and Afrikaner students. The two ethnic groups had power struggles among each other to the point that Victoria College (now known as Stellenbosch University) was established in 1865 to only teach Afrikaner students and eventually, perpetuate their ideology. Black students started to access higher education after the creation of Fort Hare University in 1916. At the beginning stages of the university, Black students were segregated, as a result, they responded with protests and demonstrations. It is from such efforts that the institution became a Black university. #FeesMustFall therefore embeds the same spirit as some institutions continue to traumatise Black students.  

What we have right now are universities that aim for international recognition, therefore adopting Western policies, syllabuses and content. Ngungi wa Thiongi in Decolonizing The Mind: The Politics of Language expresses how tertiary education in the African continent is instituted from European universities. Black students are disintegrated from their points of references, history and the environment. We learn of Africa through Western writers that have continuously devalued the African continent and its people into the idea that we are a simply a group odd tribes. 

It remains integral that we visit Professor, Mahmood Mamdani‘s question on ‘how to teach Africa in a post-apartheid academy”. To respond to the question, we need to take into account an Afrocentric education system similar to the route that Uganda and Kenya took after independence. These countries understood the role that education played during oppression, as a result, nation building for the independent societies included decolonizing the education system.  

Universities are spaces where masculinity and heteronomy triumph – another aspect that needs urgent transformation.  Women have to prove their capabilities because the workplace already has its own perceptions of gender roles and authority. Usually, the heads of departments and deans are males while the females work as the junior staff. Black women receive more than one kind of prejudice. Violence against queer bodies tends to be the norm, as well. Women and members of the LGBTQIA+ are silenced, and alienated.  Even in the #FeesMustFall movement, they are reduced into merely expanding the number of students during protest action.  The regression of such a system requires the normalisation of intersectionality.

#FeesMustFall needs to drive a transformation agenda and impact on the on-going national debate on the redistribution of land as well as access to all other socio-economic resources for the majority of South Africans.

Siphokuhle Mkancu is an intern in the Communications and Advocacy unit at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation