The #FeesMustFall protests sweeping South Africa and the shutdown of our country’s universities have revealed more than just how expensive tertiary tuition is. What is regularly forgotten in discussions about these students is that this is not their first rodeo. They have tried to prevent fee increases before and, as we reveal this week, despite the urgency of the situation the government has – for three years – simply sat on a report that could make education freely available to the poor. The sporadic National Student Financial Aid Scheme protests over the years have produced little, so we are faced with this moment: a spectacular uprising demanding that society hears how this is hurting students, from Cape Town to Johannesburg.
The result is a shock to those on the other side of the status quo: that the fabric holding our constitutional democracy together is not as tightly knit as we assumed. From displays of police brutality to possible abuses of our common law by charging protesting students with treason, #FeesMustFall is teaching us that our negotiation system needs to change.
The students have tested this system and they have found it wanting. For the students this is no longer a negotiation: it is 0% or nothing. Whether their demands are met or not, what’s clear is that students are developing a new kind of grassroots organisational politics that exists outside the usual institutions and frameworks. Formalised institutions – indeed, our usual politics – are no longer conducive to meeting the needs of these students. They believe that institutions have failed them, and must now adapt.
And so, having organised within the system and having been frustrated by it, they are organising anew. Their methods are unconventional, but it’s too easy to accuse them of anarchy and hooliganism. These students have often organised in a profoundly democratic way. They have overcome elements of patriarchy – evident when prominent women leaders were pushed out of the way and only male leaders were quoted in the media – and elements of opportunism – when political parties seeking to join their cause were embarrassingly rejected.
They have used social media and traditional ways of communication to make sure their activities are not ad hoc. They have organised from the bottom up and tried hard to air as many voices as possible, a generational departure from a politics that is about waiting for a grand saviour to lead them.
Ultimately, the protests are about much more than fees. They are about the diminishing hopes of South Africa’s youth. These protests highlight the pain and exclusion of black students, whose struggles to transform universities are part of a larger continuum, from impoverished schools and communities to the struggle for decent jobs and living conditions in a country that guarantees neither. As the student collective has stated: “If we do not revolt, we will be stuck sitting emakoneni” – loitering on a township street corner.
At every step of these protests, the students have eloquently articulated the sentiment, shared by many outside their ranks, that the decolonisation project is not finished and the time has come for a new kind of politics.