#FeesMustFall is Not About Fees

2016-10-14 13:16

For a second year in succession now, students in South African universities have shut down the university sector under the banner of what has come to be known as a demand for the scrapping of university fees. With the passage of time, the tempers have risen, panic has set in, paranoia has spread, terror has spread, shock has deepened and confusion has increased.

Why is it so? This is because the #FeesMustFall movement in its great diversities and contradictions is not really about the one thing that we have elevated above all other issues: fees. We have sought in our shock and dismay, excitement or depression to simplify a complex and multi-faceted development. It is much easier for us to understand this turbulence on the journey from the South Africa we reject to the one we want by making it simpler than it is.

We are witnessing a revolutionary movement, which means it is not a single organization or even a network of organizations, but we understand this whole youth agency as a single movement or group of anarchists, ungrateful or externally managed thugs. We have sought to make sense by finding one feature of it by which to describe it, either to celebrate or to denigrate.

It is revolutionary in that it is forcing society to confront the deep-seated matters of injustice, unfreedom, coloniality and ethics that must be resolve to move the revolution forward from the winning of a mere democracy to greater liberation.

Government sees it as a political project that has elements of regime change agenda, working with some external forces to destabilize the country. As a result, government functionaries and leaders have taken a view that this is a problem rather than an opportunity. They have sent the police to maintain law and order rather than begun serious multi-dimensional efforts to hear what the young are saying.

Now, government has finally established a ministerial task team to look into this matter. One thought this meant government was trying to listen, interfacing with others in order to find a solution until one noticed the prominent presence of the security ministers in the body. This suggests a thinking about uprisings and rebellions that is similar to the apartheid security state, which was to securitise a matter. While security concerns are real, but security cannot appear to be the overriding motivation for a government intervention.

The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, shares the view of government in that this is a wholly negative campaign. Like the governing party, it thinks this is about just fees and that the best response is to make education free of fees for "the poor", which in the case of the DS are households earning R200 000 per annum and for the ANC the figure is R600 000. Like the ANC, it also sees the need for a clampdown on thugs and anarchists.

The EFF fervently supports the student cause. It has shown such enthusiasm for this that it is willing to start its own campaigns in solidarity. Yet, it too sees this as about fees. It wants them scrapped fully. It understates the violent element in this, but to its credit it does identify the "militarization" of campuses as a cause of worry.

The narrative in the media also sees the fees as the message and therefore minimizes the equally important other messages. It also shines spotlight on violence by students and to some extent by the state. The analysis and commentary is, however, largely about students as a problem and a cause for concern. Very little opportunity is created for these students to speak for themselves. They are the actors but they are not the voice in the narrative.

University leaders, especially VCs, have positions that are almost identical to government, the ANC and DA, making them part of the establishment in this regard. They have taken a hardline position vis-a-vis students demands, not just on the manner in which student campaigns are waged, which is wishing their right to oppose, but even on whether the country can afford free education, which is not theirs to decide. They have decided to be the shield for government and political actors and taken upon themselves to soak up the pressure meant for authorities. They have gone on to push for a violent clampdown on student protests. They have since moved into a mute and silencing mode, refusing in some cases even to talk to students who have become thugs rather than their children, hooligans rather than future leaders.

Other smaller parties have perhaps lacked the voice and platforms to utter their views, except to express concerns about violence and lack of dialogue during the crisis. They have met the leaders of university leaders to support them and encourage an interaction. As far as one can tell, they have not met student leaders of student movements.

Faith leaders and other prominent civil society formations have taken the cause of students a lot more to heart than these other crucial sectors. They have stood with them against rubber bullets and stun grenades. The priests have given shelter to students locked out of residences by virtue of university management decisions. They have opened their places of worship for students to meet, strategise, iron out differences among them and even for staff to show solidarity with protesting students. This is not the whole story.

Large Pentecostal churches that large auditoriums, NGOs with funding and networks, professional organizations with necessary technical skills and trade unions with the ability to organize mass struggles have all not seized the opportunity to both support the student efforts and to support efforts to mediate and find amicable solutions to the fracas.

The campaign is much more than about fees, but it is about free education as a means to freedom in other areas of life. It is about freedom of the mind and spirit. It is about justice and ethics of co-existence. The campaign is an opportunity for us to learn to listen even to those we think are thugs, to find each other and re-establish a semblance of social contract on the basis of which we cannot walk forward. We can borrow from the words of Amos in the Bible: can two walk together unless they agree.

The duty for us is to find each other and converge around something meaningful on our journey to the future.

News24 Voices Terms & Conditions


AB praises selfless skipper

2010-11-21 18:15

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.