#FeesMustFall and complex calls for transformation

2016-10-10 07:09

The University of Kwa-Zulu Natal is a university marred by headlines of vague and isolated protest action. The #FeesMustFall movement, which has been rehashing with fiery force at UKZN campuses since August this year, brings to the forefront sensitive conflicts of transformation and economic emancipation.

What are they even protesting for?

Some students are protesting for transformation that is inclusive and free education while, others are against the disruption of classes and deny the existence of colonial influences. A brief look into UKZN protest action, and student sentiments on the ground, paints a picture of the nationwide quarrel surrounding the reigniting of #FeesMustFall this year.

“I feel unsafe going to university. It’s putting me on edge and making me more anxious about learning. The course material is going to be cut short because we’re running out of time. I feel like decolonisation has taken place. There are literally no white people on our campus and I don’t see the colonial influence in my everyday life,” says Yashna Dukhi, 18.

An 18-year-old year student who wishes to not be named adds, “I didn’t know that we were colonized. For me, UKZN is okay. I don’t see an issue. If I could change anything it would be the strike.”

The contrasts in student opinions have been brushed off since the start of the campaign. Sanele Ntumba, 18, says, “There is no mutual consensus to this protest. Some care for their future more than the coming generation. It’s introspective conflict. I think some have inner conflict in terms of which side they should follow.”

Okuhle Sthandwa, 20, argues, “#FeesMustFall is not a disruption because the term disruption validates the legitimacy of the academic calendar. How can academics be legitimate when it runs regardless of; the violence exerted on black bodies, financial exclusion, limited access and being violated and silenced by police brutality, or a militarised campus?”

In March last year, following the anonymous defacing of the King George V statue at the UKZN Howard campus, Elisha Kunene wrote boldly to the Daily Maverick of the concerns with following the University of Cape Town in the fight for transformation. “Forgive us for not having stars in our eyes at the prospect of uniting and mobilising to achieve a collective aim. For us, that is not a romanticised choice, rather a factor of circumstance. Each year we begin by praying that we won’t need another mass protest, then when we inevitably are thrown into one we pray that the cause is not one that has been artificially inflated by opportunistic student politicians; then we pray that the majority of students are not too self-interested to participate meaningfully. How, then, are we not inhibited by a protest movement that a substantial portion of the students think is superfluous?”

Why can’t we all agree on the transformation debate?

What race you are does influence your economic standing in society today because of previous disadvantage but among us it’s not spoken about so freely. If I couldn’t afford my fees I wouldn’t tell my friends my parents are struggling. Its taboo to discuss those things, especially regarding money,” says Yashna.

Our failure to directly address the economic inequalities caused by Apartheid has borne disparities of opinions that divide along class and racial lines.

“Protesters are willing to risk their own safety for the cause. It really put my own privilege into perspective...I support the movement, but only as far as I’m willing to go, because whether the movement is a success or not, I can still pay the fees. It’s like how white people are sorry about colonisation, but not as much to give up their wealth,” admits Rebekah Francis, 18.

With unemployment statistics championing records we’d rather not beat, it is no secret that graduates are likely to earn more over time and find work faster than those with only a Matric certificate or less. But the pressure of long-term debt is still imposed on students who are simply protesting for a better life than their parents had.

What about debt?

“We take our student loans to be able to study... To hopefully have a good impact on South Africa in the future but are instead, put into massive amounts of debt, which affect us later in future when trying to buy a house and stuff,” says a 19-year-old UKZN student who wished to be unnamed.

As a graduate, I too was sold dreams of lining up opportunities after graduation and salary expectations that are now, merely a fantasy. In reality, student loans delay the purchasing of my first car, my first small home and prevent the economic mobility that was earned through the struggle for that precious piece of paper. The movement for free tertiary education is not for the benefit of the wealthy and elite. Free education is for those aimlessly finishing high school, contemplating dropping out, who cannot even dream of the opportunities and salary expectations that I once could.

The long-term repercussions of commoditised education can only be dire for a nation still recovering from inequality. How can we even begin to break down oppressing economic structures when we are yet to even fully understand, and admit, to the intrusion of colonisation in our most respected institutions?

Will the students’ demand for a review of the curriculum be successful when there are those still willing to assimilate to the structures in pursuit of a better life? Our radio stations and television channels have gone through impressive local renovations. Will our learning institutions ever receive an Afrocentric revamp?

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