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The lines need to be drawn with #FeesMustFall

2016-10-26 14:21

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Gielie Hoffmann

A year ago I wrote a column for Netwerk24, titled: “Afrikaners, betoog saam!” It was right at the beginning of #FeesMustFall and most, at least within the Afrikaans-community, was writing it off as just another case of students doing what students do. The violence and vandalising didn’t sit well with them and therefore me asking them to join the protests was quite a stretch.

But, they did. Or at least enough of them so that we can’t blame our own of being completely apathetic. At both Tukkies and Maties we saw a strong Afrikaner-voice rising in support of the movement. I, for one, was glad to see this as many young Afrikaners have withdrawn into their own shells the past decade, too afraid and unsure of how to really participate in the bigger dialogue. The only young Afrikaner voices being heard were those of AfriForum Youth and they surely didn’t represent the diverse voices within the Afrikaner community.

Many started conversing about white privilege, trying to understand the rage playing out and considering in which way they can be of help But in the past year I have heard many a student tell my they have been shut out of any talks. Also, parents who were opening up about this felt quite vulnerable: they had justifiable fears but knew that their kids had to engage with these events. There was definitely, at least for a while, solid sympathy for the case of students not able to afford university. It affects us all.

But, over the past year the movement has derailed. Soon the # was used for every issue students had. And it became a vehicle for a disenfranchised youth, worried about their lack of economic freedom, workplace opportunities and hopefully a failing secondary education system, corruption and an economy struggling to get back on its feet.

The poor Vice-Chancellors were confronted with demands reaching far beyond their capabilities and resources. The lack of leadership from national level was lacking, to say the least. It was an election year and a party struggling with its own identity surely didn’t feel this was a priority.

Now, with November around the corner, most students were hoping that the biggest challenge they had to face was a tough examination. Many are now feeling under-prepared, having missed considerable academic time the past six weeks, as well as fearing that the academic year is now threatened. For those hoping to graduate, already contracted to start interning or working in 2017, severely in debt, this is not a healthy situation to be in.

So, where did this once novel movement go wrong? If #FeesMustFall was really about fees, there should have been other avenues to deal with outsourcing, rape culture, decolonising curriculums and Afrikaans as language of instruction. Suddenly the message got diluted and lost support. Was there ever a national student leadership really pushing the right agenda?  One who felt committed to finding a solution within what is really possible?  At this moment, I doubt that.

I feel the only group who can really provide a solid middle ground from which a solution can be negotiated is the black middle class. Black students who speak out against the current anarchy because they have also made sacrifices to be at university. Young black graduates who reach down and exert some leadership on those following them. And parents, who have benefitted from having studied, to add their voice to this movement and hopefully provide some perspective in the companies and government departments they work in. #FeesMustFall was never really only about the current students.  It affects us all.

What we are now seeing is a militant minority, embracing anarchy in every possible way, not clear about what they are revolting about. They have made it easy for government, as well as those who were skeptical at first, to downgrade this to students being students. We have seen security forces trying to provide some resistance. I am always afraid when I see police acting with brutality. Marikana is still fresh in all of our minds. But, there are other students, academic personal, property and resources that also deserve the right to be protected. Initially campuses maybe allowed the protestors too much freedom.

We all value dialogue. And to find a solution there is no other way than dialogue. But dialogue requires all parties involved to speak, listen, consider and yes, compromise. Unfortunately a solution now seems even further away;  the current climate really doesn’t encourage dialogue. I hope this issue, which has huge merits, can be revisited soon. This remains the issue that can truly change our country. 

*Gielie Hoffmann is a leadership-consultant.

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