Even as the #FeesMustFall protests gripped the public imagination last year, the cracks were starting to show. And as the 2016 iteration of the protests started up in Gauteng last week, the fundamental question remained unanswered: Will the movement be able to sidestep party politics?
Confronting the government about the accessibility of tertiary education means confronting the ANC, which has left many ANC-aligned student representative council (SRC) members in a difficult position. Meanwhile, politicians and aspiring politicians alike have sought to influence the movement or – in some instances – derail it altogether.
At the University of the Witwatersrand, where much of the attention has been focused, students have been hard-pressed to maintain the guise of unity – the absence of which could cause the entire movement to lose its legitimacy.
“I wouldn’t want to talk about the internal issues that the movement may be having. I think it is wise to unite for the greater cause of free education. We are guarding against the things that destabilised us last year. It is obvious that the government had infiltrated us before,” said Vuyani Pambo, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters at Wits.
The “infiltration” happened in October last year after the Union Buildings march, when accusations of the Wits SRC being controlled by the ANC surfaced. This came after the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA), which dominates the SRC and is aligned to the ANC, and other student protesters were found having a private meeting.
Thuthukile Zuma, President Jacob Zuma’s daughter, and South African Students Congress (Sasco) president Ntuthuko Makhombothi were also present. This raised issues of legitimacy and suspicion among many excluded protesters who were not affiliated to the ANC.
Wits politics master’s student Thato Magano, who was present when the PYA meeting was disrupted, says it became evident that the PYA-led #FeesMustFall movement was just a façade. After the march to Luthuli House, he says, it was clear they were part of a “circus” of the ruling party, which is why he did not attend the Union Buildings march the following day.
At the Union Buildings, Sasco-branded T-shirts and posters printed with #FeesMustFall were abundant, elevating the mistrust among students and sparking fresh allegations of the ANC’s influence over SRCs.
Wits SRC president Nompendulo Mkatshwa has been unapologetic about her ANC membership. Mkatshwa has often been seen wearing a party T-shirt and even donned an ANC doek for the cover of the December issue of Destiny magazine.
The headscarf, her trademark look, caused tensions within #MbokoLead, a solidarity movement of women within #FeesMustFall that supported former Wits SRC president Shaeera Kalla and Mkatshwa and called for a more inclusive space for all the women involved in the protests.
#MbokoLead supporters agreed to wear white T-shirts and plain doeks as a sign of solidarity against what they saw as “patriarchy” within the movement. But by the second day Mkatshwa was wearing an ANC-branded doek and many perceived it as an attempt to claim the #FeesMustFall movement as an ANC initiative.
#FeesMustFall claims to be independent and nonpartisan, but has a high concentration of EFF supporters, and PYA supporters claim to have been met with animosity when they tried to join.
“In an ideal [world], it would be possible to think a movement like #FeesMustFall can be nonpartisan and that people would be able to work together despite their political affiliations. At some point, party agendas took over and [in] the struggle for power and legitimacy, I think the bigger picture is lost,” said 2012-2013 SRC member Pearl Pillay.
On Wednesday, at a joint press conference, Wits and University of Johannesburg #FeesMustFall representatives said they do not support the meeting that Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande has organised with various SRC members.
“We do not recognise SRCs as legitimate structures; SRC members do not represent us. If Blade wants to talk to students, then he must come to our campuses,” said UJ student Londeka Gumede.
Winds of dissent blow to the Cape
To date, this year’s student protests have been concentrated in Gauteng, but that will change soon.
Although protests at the University of the Witwatersrand have already begun, registration for most University of Cape Town courses will only begin in the first week of February. But #RhodesMustFall activists have started slowly filling up their base at Avenue House, which they have renamed Azania House, in preparation for the start of the academic year.
#OpenStellenbosch activists from Stellenbosch University have also promised that they will have a strong presence when the university opens for registration. Currently, the university is encouraging students to register online. #OpenStellenbosch is demanding that all university fees must be scrapped to prevent financial exclusions, and that the university transforms its language policy so that Afrikaans is no longer the medium of instruction for those courses that still use it. The group said that a university shutdown is possible if its demands are not met.
On Monday, students at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology were moved to a military base to write their deferred exams, and the university has reported that no disruptions have taken place. Registration was meant to begin next week, but has been postponed until February to allow students to complete their exams.