#FeesMustFall: Understanding the current shitstorm

2016-10-20 13:16

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Asanda Ngoasheng

Ever since the #FeesMustFall protests started various methods of protest have been used and I have been fielding questions from many friends who ask -  how I can you support #FeesMustFall in all its incarnations including the acts of violence? My answer has been a surprise to many of them. I support the call for free education because people have been patient for more than 30 years and we can't let another generation of youth waste away under the argument that we cannot afford free education.

Students across various campuses have mostly been protesting peacefully but they have also burnt buildings, including libraries, and even threw human faeces at one campus. Most of the confusion from the general population I believe comes from lacking a historical context of the student protests and the long wait and patience that the student body in general has had over the years since the dawn of democracy.

In order to understand why or how we have ended up here you need to go to Google and type in "university protests". You should get a long list of articles going as far back as the '90s. The issues of fees and financial exclusion, especially of black kids, from universities is not new and neither are protests about this on campuses, including the violence, the pelting of police with stones, the rubber bullets etc.

Since even before 1994 students across all campuses have been winning seats and even the presidency in student representative councils (SRC) based on a promise to end academic and financial exclusion. Imagine a life where your uncle led protests against financial exclusion, then your father, then your older brother and now you find yourself as a student leading the same fight and wondering if your younger siblings and children will also lead the same fight. Under these circumstances, would you be patient? Would you take a promise to deal with it later? Would you be peaceful?

In the 30+ years of protests fees have not fallen, academic and financial exclusions have not ended, black students are still going to bed hungry, black homeless students who can't afford accommodation are still sleeping in libraries. Years of protest, both peaceful and violent, and nothing has happened. That is where this rage that leads to violence and burning comes from, it is inter-generational pain.

Our lack of understanding of the current status of black life and high unemployment is such that when Wits protests spread to the streets of Johannesburg people, especially black middle class people, were quick to point out that homeless people also took part in the protest, as if they did not have a right or stake in free education.

There has been a theory that there is a "third force" or "criminal element" that is ruining the protest. I disagree with this notion. While it is important to establish and clarify who is doing what to what end, we should not dismiss the right of non-students, the homeless, the unemployed and so-called "criminal" element's right to participate in this protest.

All these groups of people have a legitimate right to demand free education as it too is their hope out of their life of homelessness, unemployment and criminal behaviour. Many on social media commented that they shouldn't be taking part in the protest, forgetting that some of those we look down upon do have a Grade 8  and even sometimes a Grade 12 which are both requirements for entry into FET colleges and other institutions of tertiary education. They could therefore be students if education was made free. Those "criminal elements", homeless and unemployed young people, could have been students in in a fair country with free education.

What is new then and why did this current phase of protest capture the nation? What is new about these protests is that everyone who is a student has been affected by protest action. Instead of having protests at different times, and having only black students involved in the protests (which made them weak because black people for the longest time were and, in some campuses continue, to be minorities) these protest disrupt learning for everyone.

Last year's #RhodesMustFall movement which then led to the #FeesMustFall movement saw students across all South African campuses come together in one strong united voice against a proposed fee hike. After months of protest, the Rhodes statue was removed from the University of Cape Town and the government decided that no university would implement a fee increment.

The buzz around the fees then died down but other issues which affected students in general were then also brought to the fore. Some issues only affect a few campuses, e.g. Afrikaans language tuition, but some affect all campuses, e.g. the need to decolonise the curriculum. This is why the protests seem to change and focus on different aspects or demands at different times. The one common thread however is that all are issues that affect students in tertiary education.

Another criticism of the protests has been the methods used, especially the burning of buildings and the use of raw human sewage. There has been a lot written on the burning buildings and why this is happening so I want to focus on the sewage. Last year, Chumani Maxwele threw raw sewage at the Rhodes statue and this started what became known as the #RhodesMustFall movement. This year students protesting at Cape Peninsula University of Technology disrupted a meeting and threw human faeces.

While many were demonising students and calling them racist and other insulting words for using faeces in protest - I was wondering how students were able to interact with human waste at such close proximity without gagging and abandoning their cause. In thinking about this I realised that students' relationship with shit would be this way because many of them come from homes in the Western Cape where there is no proper sanitation. The province continues to use a bucket system which forces residents of all ages to interact with human waste in a manner very different to people with flush toilets.

Students from these impoverished communities spend their lives using the bucket system, cleaning bucket system toilets and living in and around the stench of human waste as the toilets are usually in close proximity to their homes (shacks). The throwing of poo becomes an effective protest method because it brings the lived experiences of these students to the doorsteps of the privileged, by class or race. 

The #FeesMustFall movement is about a lot more than just fees that need to fall and the call for free education. They are also about enlightening those who are not black or poor to the pain of being black and poor in South Africa, and sadly most of us have long closed our ears.

- Asanda Ngoasheng teaches political reporting at CPUT. Her main area of research is decolonising the curriculum.

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