#FeesMustFall and the greater struggle of racism

A photograph made rounds on Facebook on September 19 2014. Someone had used black spray-paint and wrote the words, “FUCK WHITE RACISM. BLACK POWER. BIKO LIVES” on the University of Witwatersrand’s Great Hall stairs. 

One of the leaders of the #FeesMustFall protest Mcebo Dlamini spoke to a large group of Wits students on Wednesday on the same Great Hall stairs. Dlamini told students that even though they were protesting for fees, the greater struggle was the inherent racism at the university.

Dikeledi Selowa tags 25 Wits students on the photograph and asks, “Someone tell me what the HELL is this at the Great Hall stairs.” A conversation ensues.

At the time the Mail & Guardian met with Wits EFF chairperson Vuyani Pambo, who is now one of the leaders behind the #FeesMustFall protest that started at Wits last Wednesday. Pambo said black students wanted to decolonise and transform the university. He told the M&G that they have been calling for the university to hire more black lecturers, especially black women lecturers. He said in making this call, the university had painted them as violent when in fact it was Wits University that has been very brutal to the black students, the workers, lecturers and the security staff.

The workers on campus are unregistered labour and thus have no claim to the unemployment insurance fund, provident fund or sectoral minimum wages. The treatment of black staff and black students has become worse since Habib became the vice-chancellor, Pambo alleged.

“Do you know that black workers on campus have to use separate toilets? That’s an inherent apartheid practice,” said Pambo at the time.

Dlamini said to the crowd of students: “I know some of you say, ‘Oh my gosh, what racism’ [using a twang], but I say to you, do you know the workers here are not allowed to use the same toilets you use? You have been complaining that the toilets are dirty since the university was shut down. You cannot see institutional racism, you feel it,” Dlamini said to the crowd of students.

But to go back to the photograph on the Wits Great Hall stairs posted last year, Dikeledi Selowa writes:

The M&G interviewed Tasneem Essop, one of the students behind
#TransformWits movement. Essop (23) was SRC secretary in 2013 and is currently reading for a Masters of Political Science at Wits.

She told the M&G, “As a student activist the biggest issue to deal with is access to education – basic and tertiary.”

“Young people, and by people I mean black people, who are academically viable are excluded every year because they can’t afford the education,” she said.

Essop said the problem with this country is that structurally nothing has changed. She said the people who could not access education institutions during apartheid are the same people who can’t access them today.

“These are the people who fight and somehow manage to get funding but are again excluded by the same institution.”

“People with just two years left to their degrees were excluded. What is to become of them? I should be able to access higher education, anything beyond that is a violation,” said Essop.

But the explosion that saw Wits students galvanise and march in solidarity was when the university announced a 10.5% fee increase for 2016. 

Outgoing Wits SRC president Shaeera Kalla was tasked with telling the students about the fee increases, and told the students the SRC was marginalsed at the council, the university’s highest governing body. This is what pushed the SRC to mobilise students to protest.  

In a mass meeting held at Senate House concourse during the first night of protest last Wednesday, some students accused the SRC of agreeing to the increments in council. Students have two seats in council. But Kalla quashed the accusations. She told the crowd that council simply did not entertain SRC objections to the increase. Just one council member, a professor in the university, sided with students in council meeting held on October 2. In the end, this trio lost against 16 votes. 

“That battle was lost in council just like it’s been lost in other years,” Kalla confidently told her fellow students. “We did not agree to these fee increases at any point during the process. That is why we we’ve come to you and said we need to mobilise. We’re saying council either negotiates on our terms or there will be no negotiations at all.”

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