Wits #FeesMustFall: A movement divided

Vuyani Pambo – a student figurehead in the EFF Student Command – led a #FeesMustFall protest alongside members of the Pan Africanist Student Movement of Azania. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Vuyani Pambo – a student figurehead in the EFF Student Command – led a #FeesMustFall protest alongside members of the Pan Africanist Student Movement of Azania. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

In a sudden burst, students at the University of Witswatersrand reignited the #FeesMustFall protest. The day, however, was shrouded in confusion and in-fighting with gender queer protesters confronting exclusion from male members.

Around 150 protesters gathered in Senate House, where Vuyani Pambo – a student figurehead in the EFF Student Command – led the proceedings alongside members of the Pan Africanist Student Movement of Azania (PASMA). Just after his speech – which addressed the plight of workers and students who face financial exclusion – feminist, queer, and non-binary members of Fees Must Fall entered into Senate House, confronting the majority male group on instances of misogyny within the movement.

It was essentially a protest against another protest, where student gender and non-binary activists showed the divisions that have deepened within Wits Fees Must Fall since the meeting at Union Buildings last year.

A meeting took place over the weekend, which was allegedly a “national conference” where members of Fees Must Movements across South African universities and provinces were invited to participate in a discussion on the national movement.
However, only certain representatives were invited, and students say that women were excluded entirely.

Pambo addressed rumours that members of the group had assaulted and chased people out of the protest because of their sexual orientation saying that the movement must be inclusive of everyone.

“Comrades, let us find each other. No one must be excluded here. Every single person here is allowed to be here, no one is going to police who doesn’t come. I don’t care what sexual orientation you are, you are allowed here,” Pambo said.

His words did little to calm the tensions. Some students around campus stood in smaller groups, quietly discussing the state of the movement and the role of gender queer feminists within its ranks.

While students disrupted lectures, and shut down the university’s fees office earlier in the day, the protest lacked direction and a clear aim. Standing before students at Senate House, Pambo spoke of Marikana, President Jacob Zuma’s sullied presidency, and the plight of workers. He also made mention of the students who are facing financial exclusion.

Police instructed to arrest people who vandalised property
In March, Wits released a statement saying students who could not afford fees owed would receive some respite if they acknowledged their debt in writing.

Students who cannot afford to pay their fees by March 31 2016 should sign an Acknowledgement of Debt (AOD) at the Fees Office and enter into a payment plan to prevent interest from being added to their account. If students adhere to the payment plan, no interest will be charged, the Wits’ senior executive team said in its statement

The senior executive team added that students who neglected to sign the AOD would not be de-registered, but interest would be added to their accounts.  

As Pambo spoke inside Senate House, a fire was started at a lecture hall in the university’s Umthombo Building. The fire was extinguished, but the roof and chairs inside the hall were damaged.

Wits has responded to the protest, saying that police have been instructed to arrest people who vandalised property and contravened the court order the university has in place. Suspension orders have also been made.

“We have strengthened security and secured all lecture venues and entrance and exit points. All activities of the university continue as usual,” the university said in a press statement.

“We believe that today’s protest is a politically orchestrated campaign with larger national objectives. The individuals who addressed the student groups today were from Wits, other universities in Gauteng, the Western and Eastern Cape and some political parties,” it added. 

The anger of women, queer and non-binary students is still palpable on campus. The protest died before 4pm, with many still confused as to what the original objectives were, and where Wits Fees Must Fall is headed.

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