Walking tall

Frontman Vuyani Pambo leading a march during a #FeesMustFall protest in Braamfontein. (Picture: Tebogo Letsie)
Frontman Vuyani Pambo leading a march during a #FeesMustFall protest in Braamfontein. (Picture: Tebogo Letsie)

It was a telling image as student protest leader Vuyani Pambo climbed, peacefully, into an armoured police vehicle.

Last Thursday, Pambo was on TV, held by the arms by two police officers and calmly stepping into a nyala.

The outgoing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) student leader didn’t put up a fight.

He’d made peace with his impending arrest, having slept away from home for the previous two weeks, with his shoes on.

Fellow student leader Mcebo Dlamini had been denied bail the day before, and Shaeera Kalla and Busisiwe Seabe were in hospital, injured by rubber bullets.

The 27-year-old African literature honours student was just about the last one standing.

To his surprise, he was released not five minutes later after a thorough scolding by officers, who warned him that he was going to be the next guest of Hillbrow Police Station’s holdings cells.

Almost exactly a year ago, Pambo was also one of the last student leaders standing, after the 0% increase was announced and protests largely dissipated.

Pambo kept going with a group of about 30 students.

After running battles with private security last October, Wits University vice-chancellor Adam Habib came down to see what was going on.

A shouting match ensued – the 1.98m-tall Pambo haranguing an apparently unflustered Habib, his lanky arms gesturing towards him accusingly.

“Adam Habib! We have had a peaceful protest for two weeks. Are we stupid? Suddenly when you divide us this happens!” he roared.


Pambo’s private persona, however, is somewhat different from his public image as a revolutionary.

His close friend and academic supervisor, Dr Danai Mupotsa, says:

“He can do the public big-man politics, but when he writes, his voice is much more timid, it’s full of emotion.

“He has this voice, but there is not enough time and space and quiet and sleep,” she says.

In the more than a year since I met him, I have never seen Pambo looking refreshed. His bloodshot eyes are as much a part of him as his scruffy beard and uncombed hair.

Mupotsa adds: “He wants to be the scholar, he wants to be that guy, but I don’t know if it’s going to work if he does both academics and politics.”


It’s March, and over a drink at The Orbit Jazz Club in Braamfontein, Pambo sits hunched over a table too small for his frame.

An hour before, he had been on campus with EFF national spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, with whom he had studied in the late 2000s.

The two had been reminiscing about the student protests they had been involved in. Pambo volunteers for the EFF in its election campaign department.

It’s late, and he takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes; he yawns often, but keeps talking.

He commands respect from people more than twice his age, perhaps because of his uncanny ability to connect with people using language.

He is fluent in most of South Africa’s 11 languages, and has his late “Mawe” (grandmother) to thank for this gift.

“She taught me how to read. She was the person who discovered that I loved debating and reading,” he recalls.

In his early school days in Soweto, Pambo would rush back to discuss ideas with Mawe in the kitchen while avoiding his assigned chore of sweeping up leaves that had fallen from the peach tree.

“She used to explain biology to me in isiXhosa, which was weird. You would be shocked to know that she wasn’t educated; she stopped school in Standard 2.

But she could speak Dutch and every African language except Venda,” he says.

“She would say, ‘Dutch and Afrikaans are not far from each other, just listen’.

“She would say, ‘you don’t have any business speaking your own language, speak the other person’s language – that is how you connect’.”


Going from the township schools of Ekuthuleni and Holy Cross to the elite St David’s Marist private school in Sandton was Pambo’s refiner’s fire.

In the township schools, he was the teacher’s pet who was crowned “Mr Ekuthuleni” twice.

“You know, in township schools, when you are the smart one, you get sent to buy amagwinya while the other kids get taught,” he says.

This “special treatment” came to an end when he went to St David’s Marist for a school meeting in Grade 7, where he met former president Nelson Mandela.

“‘Do you want to come to this school?’ he asked me. I said, ‘Ja, I wouldn’t mind, but it’s a boys’ school, man, where are the girls?’ And he laughed,” Pambo recalls.

“I said: ‘Why? Did you move the girls because we were coming?’”

Pambo began his St David’s career on a scholarship.

He came face to face with racism for the first time when one of two black boys on a school camping trip was falsely accused of stealing a white boy’s wallet.

The boy’s friend had meant it as a prank, and the boy’s parents apologised, offering him sleepovers at their upmarket home in compensation. He declined.


Pambo’s politics begin to take shape at the elite boys’ school.

“I wake up in a place – Soweto – where it is not common for your parents to take you to school.

You don’t see your parents, they come back in the evening. They are tired; they are angry at you. You are angry at them.

“I wake up and by 5am I am ready and bathed. I am on the way to school, which starts at 7.30am. By the time I get to school, I have been awake for at least three hours.

"These people that I must interact with – white kids and the rich ones – have only been up for 30 minutes when they come to school.”

He hums the theme tune of Generations, the soundtrack of his arrival home in the evenings, weighed down by his blazer, and school and sports bags.

In the mornings, he would often arrive late, at the mercy of taxis.

“I was often extremely late; by the time I got there, I really didn’t care. There was no punishment greater than that routine,” he says.

“This one time they wanted to give me detention for being late and I told them not to compare me with people who lived down the road.”

He learnt more than a suburban English accent; he also learnt to assert his identity in class.

“A friend of mine and I would do speeches on Steve Biko, do simple things like: ‘Black man, you are on your own.’ I’d watch Malcolm X – I loved that man.”

His new school was a world away from the old.

“At St David’s, 20 people were a lot for a class. There is an air conditioner; it is hot outside, but we are cool in there.

"My old school was dark, loud and hot. At St David’s, you have your own chair. There is a psychologist on campus, there is a nurse. You drop five marks at St David’s, you go to a psychologist.”


At a talk shop hosted by the RethinkAfrica think tank earlier this year, Pambo gave some insight into his unwavering demand for free education for all.

He told the panel of students, Treasury and higher education officials:

“Let us envisage a situation where half of this room is paying and the other half is not.

"Those who are paying will have a difficult relationship to the space compared with those who are not paying. It puts those who are paying against those who are not paying.

“I know this because I went to a school where there were billionaire kids and poor kids who came by way of scholarships.

"You go there and everyone knows that you are not paying ... when you have a genuine concern, they say you should keep quiet and be grateful. Our lived experience in the university should be one of gratitude – we enter there feeling like we are the lucky ones.

"The grateful ones, the ones who are supposed to behave in a particular way.”

The pain of straddling two lives rose to the surface.

“I may end up graduating and working in Sandton while my brothers who I used to play with in the mud in Soweto are still there and I’ll come back with a powerful machine,” he said.

“I’ll be celebrated and I will buy them beers and, in an embarrassing way, they will ask to wash my car. We don’t want that, we don’t want to be better blacks. We want to be black.”


Do you think students on scholarships should be grateful for the opportunity and keep quiet, or speak out when they have issues?

SMS us on 35697 using the keyword SCHOLAR. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Lockdown For
Voting Booth
Should pension fund members be allowed to access their savings before retirement?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Yes, it's their money to do with as they please.
35% - 1209 votes
No, more people will end up without enough savings in retirement.
37% - 1290 votes
Depends on how big the withdrawal limits will be.
29% - 1002 votes
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.