/ 5 October 2016

#WitsFeesMustFall vs #TakeWitsBack: Whose right is it to protest?

Police have retreated to the perimeter of Wits university
The Wolfgat — whose six mostly female staff have no formal training — opened just two years ago in a 130-year-old cottage and cave on the beach at Paternoster. (Image via Facebook)

With the absence of police on campus, the University of the Witwatersrand is in a state of relief. But tensions and pressure still exist. A group of students protested for Wits to resume its academic programme under the banner of #TakeWitsBack on Wednesday and #FeesMustFall students let their reaction be known.

The #TakeWitsBack students marched silently from the Science Stadium to the Great Hall. They were a smaller group than the #FeesMustFall movement had been in recent days and as they reached the Great Hall steps, they were outnumbered when #FeesMustFall protesters walked up to them and ripped up their placards.

There was some cheekiness in the way #FeesMustFall addressed their opposition protesters, with one student asking: “How was Starbucks yesterday?” 

But there was anger too. On Tuesday, police had released stun grenades and rubber bullets at peaceful #FeesMustFall protesters and arrests had been made with scant provocation. The Starbucks question was a remark on the absence of #TakeWitsBack students while their peers were being unjustifiably chased by police.

The students in #TakeWitsBack were mostly white and this sparked more anger from #FeesMustFall. A black student from the fees movement sat among the #TakeWitsBack group and passionately spoke of the inequalities in how white protesters are treated in comparison to black student protesters.

“Who are they? This is a delegation from Habib,” he said. 

“You can see the difference – it’s white. They don’t help us when we are fighting for free education. They must stop pretending.”

“They said they are not going to get shot here, because they are white, and they are right.”

On Tuesday night, the university had reached a decision with various stakeholders, including representatives of the students fighting for free education, that police would be moved to the perimeter of campus. Private security kept an eye on the two protests happening at the university on Wednesday, but there was little interference.

For the #TakeWitsBack protesters, who eventually had to retreat, the reaction from Wits #FeesMustFall was an infringement on their right to protest.

“We are in a space in South Africa where everybody has a right to their voice. You cannot impose your will on us. We have our opinions, we have our own mind,” a student said. “You speak, allow us to speak.”

At the time, a meeting had begun in Solomon Mahlangu House, where #FeesMustFall was in discussion. A student from the movement told the #TakeWitsBack protester that instead of demonstrating, he should attend the meeting.

“Come to the meetings and engage,” a student responded. “What is this going to change?”

The question of who has a right to protest hung in the air. For the fees protesters it seemed clear that the #TakeWitsBack group were at the wrong end of the stick and should just call it quits. Students who wanted the academic programme to resume were even prevented from speaking to media. One student who had been outspoken against #TakeWitsBack explained her take.

“I don’t necessarily think that they had a right to protest because I think they’re coming from a position of privilege and power. The right to protest should be given to those who are fighting for their power, not those who already have power. Otherwise, it’s not really a protest – it’s just an assertion of power that you already have,” said the 23-year-old social science student.

“For me as a white person, I realise that even though it’s terrifying, it’s my responsibility to call white people to order,” she added.

Private security later stepped in, after the #TakeWitsBack students had retreated to the Science Stadium. Once there, #FeesMustFall students followed and disrupted their caucus. Private security formed a line between the two parties to keep them separated, but eventually all the members of #TakeWitsBack dispersed. Former Wits #FeesMustFall leader Vuyani Pambo addressed the students shortly after, saying that the demand of #TakeWitsBack students put the university into white hands.

“There’s one conclusion from that [protest] … and it is that they’re taking Wits back to white hands, and our protest has been saying we must extend the space for more people who look like me and you to enter the space even when we’re gone,” said Pambo.

He re-iterated that the students must reclaim the university so that black students see more black faces along the hallways of campus. There’s little doubt in the #FeesMustFall camp that it’s their turn to speak, and in the meantime, other will have to listen.

Wits University has said that campus operations will resume on Monday following a general assembly with the university community that is set to take place on Friday.