OPINION | Student protests: Don't let political parties hijack the movement

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A tyre burns on Empire Road amid student protests outside Wits University on 10 March 2021.
A tyre burns on Empire Road amid student protests outside Wits University on 10 March 2021.
Kayleen Morgan

Students must take lessons from other protest movements around the world as government's current stopgap  measure may leave students in the same or a similar situation when fees and registration fees are again demanded, writes Olwethu Mhaga.


"We call on all sectors of society to come together and heed the call of students, as we seek to create a country where the circumstances of one's birth are not a hindrance to the fulfilment of the potential within us all."

- Olwethu Mhaga, 1 July 2016

It's been almost five years since I uttered these hopeful words. 

I was speaking during a press conference on the Students for Law and Social Justice's (SLSJ) submission to the Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training, also known as the Fees Commission.

I uttered these words in a brief moment of hope amid the violence and disruption that had come to exemplify the youth-led #FeesMustFall protest movement. 

Almost five years later, a violent response from the police, who fired rubber bullets at protesting students, led to the death of Mthokozisi Ntumba.

It has become all the more apparent that aspects of our law enforcement will rather hurt people than allow them to protest over broken promises.

Renowned American poet, Maya Angelou, once said:  

"When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time."

I offer the same advice to students continuing the charge in the fight for free and quality education for all. 

It is inexplicable that we would, once again, be faced with the death of a citizen at the arms of the state so soon after the murder of Collins Khoza, who died following an altercation with soldiers at his home after they accused him of violating lockdown regulations. The SA National Defence Force held an internal investigation which cleared the soldiers. A criminal investigation into Khoza's death was recently completed. 

READ | Collins Khosa: It's now up to NPA to act after 11 month probe

All this happened at a time when the world witnessed the brutal arrest of American George Floyd. For eight minutes and 46 seconds, US police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd's neck. He died soon after.

At the time, the ANC announced a campaign dubbed Black Friday in solidarity with the global protest movement sparked by Floyd's death at the hands of the police. 

However, similarly to ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule's chant: "Long live the student struggle, long live," as he marched in solidarity with students in Braamfontein, actions speak louder than words.

From Dr Sydney Mufamadi's testimony at the state capture commission, we learnt about Project Academia, in which the State Security Agency trained students as agents. These agents were deployed in the student protest movement to influence its direction and effect.

The impulse of many in power has been to destabilise, subdue, or even to hijack the protest movement for their political ends rather than seriously remedying the failures that gave rise to it.

As already mentioned on Friday 12 March 2021, we were treated to the uniquely South African spectacle of watching one of the top three leaders of the ANC and its student wing protest against the governing party's policies and budget.

Despite the ridiculousness of the situation, the appropriation of the protest by factions of the ruling party does not bode well for its eventual success. 

READ | What impact could student protests have on Ramaphosa and the ANC. We ask 3 experts

Before he left office as president, Jacob Zuma announced that the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) would fund the higher education of students whose parents earn R350 000 per annum or less.

The announcement nullified the initial protests and brought them to an ignominious end. This was despite the continued struggles of the NSFAS to fulfil its mandate.

Similarly, the higher education and training minister's recent announcement that NSFAS will fund all qualifying students, does not solve the problem. 

It does not take an oracle to predict that the stopgap measure may leave students in the same or a similar situation when fees and registration fees are again demanded.

It is for this reason and the failures experienced from the #FeesMustFall protests that I believe lessons are required from other successful protest movements that have translated their picketing into legislative and policy changes.

An example would be the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement that saw a resurgence after Floyd's murder and found resonance around the world. 

Although the movement only became a household name in 2020 when an estimated 15 to 26 million took part in protests across America, BLM began in July 2013 - early in the second term of the Obama administration. 

Nevertheless, its decentralised and unaffiliated nature has ensured that it remains unbeholden to any political party ensuring that its message remains resolute irregardless of the party in power at any particular time.

The movement even translated into electoral support. It served as one of the key catalysts that saw record African American turnout.

Youth turnout substantially increased in both the American presidential elections that saw Joe Biden elected as well as the Georgia state Senate runoffs won by Democrats Jon Ossoff and Reverend Raphael Warnock.

The Georgia runoff victory gave the Democrats a slight majority in the Senate. 

These victories have culminated in the passing of an extensive Police Reform Bill in the House, aptly named after Floyd.

Coupled with reforms applied at various local police departments, the myriad of concerns that saw the protests arise in the first place are beginning to be addressed.

Students need to vote

Therefore, to build a lasting movement that will see and effect real change in the lives of ordinary students, an organisation that is not beholden to any political party or faction must be built. 

This organisation should work to ensure that those who turn out for protests also vote.

Students should express their electoral weight and power while also focusing on translating that support into lasting, sustainable, and effective policy and legislative solutions.

It was the political philosopher and author Frantz Fanon that prophetically pronounced:

"Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it".

With the resurgence of protests around the country crying out for free and quality education for all, the mission at hand appears clear, yet the path to fulfilling it remains murky.

Therefore, as we continue in this new phase in the struggle for education and its powers of emancipation from the tyranny of poverty, as we seek to give reality to the vision expressed in our Constitution in this struggle by students, success must be an imperative and failure cannot be tolerated. 

The continued cost would be unforgivable. 

This, however, will not occur at the benevolence of the government, but rather by the persistent and unceasing efforts of students to manifest this reality.

- Olwethu Mhaga is a former secretary-general of Students for Law and Social Justice and a member of the ANC Youth League, Fourways Branch. He has an LLB degree from the University of Pretoria. He writes in his personal capacity.

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