The bells toll for you

Student at Wits University flee as police fire tear gas at them during an anti-apartheid protest rally in 1989. Today’s students draw on the significance of the protests in the 1970s and 1980s. (Ulli Michel/Reuters)

Student at Wits University flee as police fire tear gas at them during an anti-apartheid protest rally in 1989. Today’s students draw on the significance of the protests in the 1970s and 1980s. (Ulli Michel/Reuters)

Students are ringing the bell. A call for respect for human rights is being sounded. Roles are reversed – students are ringing it for their principals, and not the other way around.

Education often reflects what is happening in broader society.
Over the past few weeks, we have seen students taking to platforms and being dispersed by rubber bullets and stun grenades, but still their resolve to hold leaders accountable is not quelled. Access to success and quality in universities is a call that is an undeniable right.

I want to make a connection with a similar sounding of the bell not so long ago. As a student activist of the 1980s, I know instinctively that students are disrupting the relations of power for a much broader aim in society.

Questions are raised as this campaign increasingly gains political significance. What is the deeper meaning behind the #feesmustfall movement? Is it only about affordability, which can be resolved by a financial solution? My contention is that the unrest symbolises much more than a call by students to merely drop university fees. I seek deeper meaning from two angles.

First, it is about students holding the leadership of the country accountable – especially universities, government and political leaders – for access to higher education as a human right

Education is core to an experience of being human because it nurtures creativity, thought, emotion and an awareness of self and of others. Phases of formal learning at primary and higher levels stem from how we are able to know ourselves, so that we can contribute to knowing how best to live collectively and co-operatively. Higher learning incorporates knowing a range of natural and constructed environments and their respective logics, which enable us to locate ourselves individually and collectively in the world.

Ultimately, education helps us form values and ideas that take us as a human species to more humane ways of living together. Students are therefore fighting for a human right that goes to the core of who we are as human beings.

Second, it is about our history, which provides a basis on which to hold each other accountable for basic rights.

Recent memory of the political resistance of the 1976-1980s period bears testimony to South African youth who can fundamentally disrupt political power. It was a time when brutal police and military forces failed to silence the call for sociopolitical liberation from the militant and organised youth.

It was a time when material wealth was vested in the hands of a white minority who owned land, passed oppressive laws and possessed a powerful army. Oppressed people were excluded from public life and from participation in the economy.

The education system was part of this apartheid-capitalist system that dehumanised people in ghettoes of poverty. Despite, and because of, strong state repression, an era of youth politics ignited on June 16 1976. The political tide turned and made liberation from a colonised mind-set and socioeconomic suppression thinkable.

The momentum of Soweto 1976 was carried into the 1980s, when student unrest and community-based organs began to change the power dynamics in South Africa. Leaders were born. Students became organised into alliances with workers. Parents rallied behind students who led a struggle to shape a different social reality.

In 1985, the high point of the 1980 student movement, was characterised by urban warfare, which included torture, detention without trial and politicised funerals.

About 50 United States-based companies pulled out of South Africa as students fought to make the country ungovernable. Political activism, mass action and a clear programme for a different society became the precursor to the negotiated settlement of 1994 and of a majority government.

The memory and energy of this struggle underpin the current student protest. Through this, students are raising awareness that the majority of people who were oppressed during apartheid are still, generationally, suffering socioeconomic marginalisation.

Today, we see similarities, albeit in a different political epoch. Students are united in a struggle to be heard and to be reckoned with. They draw on the historical significance of 1976 and the 1980s and they see a failing education system as a discontinuity of what their predecessors fought and died for. Students are rising up again to hold leaders accountable for making education accessible.

More disguised in this unrest, but still present, is how university education can serve the broader aim of declaring education as a public good, a right and a space to form a new set of values for society.

Student leaders are sounding the bell to their counterparts – leaders in government, universities, cultural organisations, labour and business – to support the movement to make universities places that are accessible to all young people. Students are organising themselves into a movement that seeks to reconfigure how academic and political leaders relate to them.

This movement is crucial to discern how power, especially in universities, is mediated and to what ends. Their protest is also about building a participatory democracy that endeavours to share power in society. Students are asserting their voice as prospective leaders of the country. Their intentions include acquiring the academic and conceptual tools to engage critically with society, with a view to reshape it.

Crucial strategic angles are offered in their movement. First, to declare the struggle for university access a nonpartisan movement so that wider objectives such as social transformation are kept in focus. Second, to insist that leaders, political and institutional, listen to and declare their concrete intentions to improve access to and relations in higher learning.

The reconstruction of social hierarchies is central to their project of transforming higher education. Students have already demonstrated such reconstruction by getting the highest leadership to heed to their call for better access to all our universities.

Let us all support this movement to make universities, and education more broadly, an accessible right and a humanising experience for everybody.

Daryl Braam, an education specialist, is a student of the 1980s

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