/ 22 October 2015

Student protest: ‘Even if they point their guns at us, we are going’

Former New York Daily News editorial staff members Carla Roman (L) and Reggie Lewis depart the newspaper's Manhattan office after reports that the paper was reducing its editorial staff by some 50% (Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

Students gather outside the University of Witwatersrand medical campus in Parktown. It is Tuesday morning. They sing struggle songs.

Women and men, mostly twentysomethings, clap, chant and toyi-toyi in the Johannesburg heat, which already sits at around 30°C. They form a large circle. In the centre, a young woman starts a song. She marches forward and backward, fist in the air. The rest follow her.

The ground reverberates beneath her feet. She gets on her knees and starts to clap to a beat. The crowd follows. She sings.

Siyaya siyaya noma besidubula, besishaya, besikhomba, siyaya ­­– we are going, we are going, even if they shoot at us, beat us, point at us (with guns), we are going.

The crowd sings.

This is the new incoming Wits Student Representative Council (SRC) president, Nompendulo Mkatshwa (22), who will begin her term officially on November 1. A third-year BSc geography student, she is one of the leaders of the #FeesMustFall movement that started at Wits University last Wednesday and has spread to other universities, including in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Pretoria, and at Fort Hare and Rhodes.

Wits management last Wednesday announced that fees will be hiked by 10.5% for 2016 and that the upfront registration fee will be increased by 6%, bringing the initial registration fee to R9?900. At the time Wits management told the Mail & Guardian it had no choice but to implement student fee increases as state funding to universities was declining.

Wits chief financial officer Linda Jarvis said that without fee increases the quality of Wits’s academic teaching would be at risk. The decision was taken by the institution on the day that saw galvanised Wits students march under the banner #WitsFeesMustFall, a protest referred to as “day one” by student leaders.

The protest intensified. On day two, more students joined in and started to block traffic on Jorissen Street in Braamfontein.

On day three, the students took over Wits’s Senate House and asked to meet the university’s vice-chancellor, Adam Habib, and the university council. They demanded a 0% fee increase. It was on this day that the protest became tense.

Mkatshwa tells the M&G that security guards fired pepper spray into Senate House, which the students now call Solomon Mahlangu House.

University spokesperson Shirona Patel said that the pepper spray had been fired by an external security guard who had “felt threatened” while escorting council members from their cars to Senate House.

Some students panicked and fled but others retaliated by throwing water bottles and brandishing sticks and chairs. At this point, the students seemed to be led by student Mcebo Freedom Dlamini, who earlier this year was removed from the post of Wits SRC president, and Wits Economic Freedom Fighters chairperson Vuyani Pambo.

It was on Monday, day five, that Mkatshwa herself took centre stage. She led the students in song as they blocked nearby Empire Road.

“We are here to frustrate the city and we want the mayor, Parks Tau, to intervene,” she said.

It was at this protest that a motorist sped through the crowd and injured nearly 20 students. Others chased the car, smashed his windshield and overturned the bakkie. He emerged with blood on his face and was helped from the car by police.

It is Wednesday: day seven. Mkatshwa yawns. She places her hands on her head. Her eyes are red. We are in the SRC offices where she is about to type the day’s agenda and reply to some of the emails sent to her by students.

“We are tired, we have not slept,” she says.

Mkatshwa says the media want to rob this protest of its legitimacy and have been biased in their reporting.

“They said we held people hostage, that we attacked people,” she says. “They are painting us as violent and as hooligans. We are beginning to ask who owns the media. Don’t delegitimise our protest because you have ulterior motives.”

Mkatshwa said Wits students are ultimately fighting for free education. She says the system is fundamentally flawed and designed to keep black people poor and as a permanent underclass.

“A student who is poor works extra hard because they are poor. In September, they worry about fees because they won’t be allowed to write their exams. In December they worry about fees because they can’t access their marks. In January, they worry about fees because they can’t register. It is a constant worry. It is oppression,” she says. “It is abuse.”

She reads an email aloud. One of the “liberal” students, who says she understands the plight of the poor, asks why they don’t postpone the protest until after exams.

“People who say let’s study and protest after exams, we say to that child, ‘You are selfish.’ Who gives them the right over the other child, who also woke up, but can’t write exams because they are poor?” she says. “These are people who don’t see their privilege.”

Asked whether she is not scared of leading students into danger, or placing their lives in jeopardy, she says: “We are scared. A student was shot at NMMU [Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth] this morning. Students are being arrested in Cape Town, they are being shot at – it’s hard in Cape Town, they are anti-black. But we tell the students, at no point should you feel like you are wrong. We are on the right side of history. We are victims of untransformed institutions with apartheid legacies entrenched deeply within them.”

An SRC member comes into her office to say students have been waiting for her at “Solomon Mahlangu” house – occupied on day six because, they say, it is a space in which they as students feel safe and can ensure the safety of others.

“They are waiting to hear the way forward,” he says.

She leaves for Solomon-Mahlangu-née-Senate House, where she tells the waiting students that Wits management has cut wifi, shut down libraries, cut access to toilet paper and refused to give them chairs and tables – a week before exams.

“They don’t want us to be academically active. They want to shut us down. They are trying to frustrate us. But we must say no! The moment we give up because of chairs and tables means we have lost the plot,” she tells the students before she leads them in song.

Mkatshwa was born in Johannesburg, living with her mom in Ponte City, Hillbrow, until the age of three.

They then moved to Pretoria where she matriculated at Pretoria High School for Girls.

“Most likely to be the country’s president” was how Mkatshwa’s fellow students thought of her in her matric year.

These past days have certainly pushed her on the learning curve towards leadership, even if it is just as SRC president. So far.