The women who led the #FeesMustFall protest


Nompendulo Mkhatshwa: The fight for equality keeps us going

On Instagram, she describes herself as “a young black female gladiator and an extroverted introvert who is hip and unique”.

But after this week, South Africans now compare Nompendulo Mkhatshwa to a young Lillian Ngoyi and several other female stalwarts who fought against the injustice of apartheid.

Little was known about Mkhatshwa, the incoming student representative council president at Wits University, before the #FeesMustFall campaign began. She was just another student passionate about politics.

But when she took a stand on Wednesday and led a march with other student leaders to Luthuli House, her profile was elevated. She spoke boldly as the group handed over a memorandum of their grievances to ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe.

Social networks went crazy, and many people commended her tenacity. Photographs of her leading the student march down the streets of Johannesburg went viral, and many said she was another Winnie Mandela in the making.

Facebook user Gilbert Mkhabela wrote: “Iconic pic of Wits incoming SRC president Nompendulo Mkhatshwa. If a picture can tell a thousand words, this is it. Fearless, determined, resolute and beautiful. Her parents should be very proud of her, because the rest of South Africa is ... The future of this country is indeed in good hands. This is a good time to be a South African.”

On Friday night after the march on the Union Buildings, an exhausted Mkhatshwa was lying on a low, concrete wall outside the Wits Great Hall with her shoes off. Yesterday, she missed the student meeting at the university, and was recovering at home with swollen legs.

She tweeted: “So used to sleeping on a sponchie at Solomon House ... My room and bed have become a foreign entity.”

On Wednesday, Destiny magazine published an interview with her in which she said she took up this fight because opposition to injustice made her tick.

“That’s what keeps me going and that is what keeps us going.

“The fact that there are those who have and those who don’t have, the fight for equality and access for all keeps me going,” she said.

Shaeera Kalla: We have won the battle – the war continues

Nine days after the #FeesMustFall campaign began, Wits University’s outgoing SRC president Shaeera Kalla was still at it yesterday, declaring that students would neither retreat nor surrender until higher education was free for all.

A visibly exhausted Kalla urged students at a meeting not to back down, saying: “We have only won the battle and the war continues. Education must be free for all,” she said.

Kalla has been at the forefront of the #FeesMustFall campaign.

Last Wednesday, a video showing Kalla and other students trying to prevent non-protesting students from entering the university premises went viral with many admiring her leadership.

But it was on Thursday – when she marched from Braamfontein to Luthuli House in central Joburg, leading thousands of students from Wits and the University of Johannesburg – that South Africa sat up and took note of her.

Saadieka Dawood wrote on Facebook: “We need more young people like Shaeera Kalla.

“To the other youth I just say: ‘Get off your golden throne; come out of your ivory towers; stand up for what you believe in. Stop being scared, for one cannot find freedom if there is fear.’

“Shaeera, so proud of you and the other Wits students. We thank you for your sacrifice.”

On Friday night, Kalla posted a note on Facebook saying students were “not satisfied” with government’s promise of a 0% increase.

“Comrades, for too long we have allowed a system that perpetually excludes the poorest of the poor from the gates of higher learning.

“For too long we have allowed lily-white councils to mercilessly dictate how we should live, how we should eat, how we should study and what we should study,” she wrote.

“This week we affirmed we are an African university.

“Through the national shutdowns, the march to Luthuli House, the shutdown of Parliament in Cape Town, we have proven we are ready to truly reclaim our country and make history.

“0% is not a victory without a commitment to free education now,” she wrote on Facebook.

Jodi Williams: Queer black women will lead

On Monday evening, just hours after members of Stellenbosch University’s #FeesMustFall movement occupied the administration building they had renamed Winnie Mandela House, guidelines and rules of conduct had to be drawn up.

During one of many meetings that went on into the early hours of the morning, political science student Jodi Williams (21) reprimanded the group when they spoke out of turn, and talked down the men who interrupted the women.

“Please remember that in this group we give preference to queer black women. Do not disrespect us; do not speak over us. Women have been displaced and it will not happen here. When we take questions or suggestions from the house, we accept them from black women first,” she said.

“Mbokodo [The Rock] lead us,” was the response she and other women received throughout the week.

When riot police were deployed to the occupied building on Tuesday morning, Williams was on the inside. “I gave myself up for a peaceful arrest. Instead, we were brutalised, and have been criminalised by the university. I am traumatised. I got first-hand experience of police brutality,” she said, her voice breaking after a week of shouting.

“I was forcefully coerced out of the building with a lot of aggression. I have never experienced something that violent before.”

Aside from working towards making fees fall, Williams is working overtime to keep patriarchy in check, and refuses to allow women to be undermined.

“In social justice movements, most of the time leadership positions are hijacked by men – we are turning the tables. Queer black women will lead. Most of the time in these movements, it is women doing the work – they do the operational running of movements and men get all the glory for it. They get put on a pedestal for it,” she says. “It will be different for this movement; the women will lead.”

Williams’ mother is unemployed and her only income comes from a disability grant. Her dad works in liquor sales.

“It is stressful and difficult to pay fees in a single-income household. My end goal with this protest is free education, which I will continue to fight for.” 

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