Icarus fell when he flew too close to the sun with wings made of feathers and wax. In the case of media darling Nompendulo Mkhatshwa, it’s too simplistic to see her rise – and fall – through a mythical lens.
Instead, it’s a story of someone who took on the mantle of leadership, at the behest of students, at a time of the most revolutionary student movement in post-apartheid South Africa. What she found was so much more than she anticipated.
At the height of last year’s #FeesMustFall protests, as a BSc student at the University of the Witwatersrand and an ANC activist, Mkhatshwa was widely regarded as the movement’s foremost leader. A year later, she won’t speak in public for fear it will further “divide the students”.
“There is a fight,” Mkhatshwa told the Mail & Guardian on Wednesday, “and I do have a different opinion on how it can be fought … but I don’t want us to divert from what the main issue is – the demands of students being met.”
Mkhatshwa is president of the students’ representative council (SRC) but has remained largely out of the media limelight, which is engrossed with her predecessors, Mcebo Dlamini and Shaeera Kalla.
Mkhatshwa and Kalla led a student march to the ANC’s Luthuli House headquarters in Johannesburg in October last year and were lauded by academics, parents and political parties, who took pride in women rising to leadership positions and directing the protests.
But even then the cracks were apparent. Although the incumbent SRC leader tried repeatedly to rouse the crowd occupying Luthuli House, it was Dlamini and the Economic Freedom Fighters branch leader, Vuyani Pambo, who emerged as the populist leaders, with students responding fervently to their well-worn revolutionary sloganeering and confrontational antics.
Still, in the popular media at least, Mkhatshwa remained among the favourite voices of the #FeesMustFall movement, her trademark doek and clenched fist gracing the front pages of newspapers and even lifestyle magazine covers. For a public and media eager to latch on to personalities to help make sense of this confrontation with the ruling party and the university over fees, Mkhatshwa was a godsend.
Attempts to tear her down – she worked part-time as a researcher at Luthuli House, went to a model C school and her parents are civil servants – seemed to do little to break her stride.
But, in the course of a year, when the fees movement fell from the spotlight, things changed.
The day after the march to Luthuli House, at least 20 000 students marched on the Union Buildings in Pretoria in protest against fee increases. It was the single largest student demonstration against fee increases.
The Wits students were credited with sparking the protests that would lead to at least 17 universities being shut down last year.
Mere hours after the march, where President Jacob Zuma declared a zero percent fee increase for 2016, Mkhatshwa’s leadership of the movement was severely compromised when she called for an end to the national shutdown.
The call, made at the bidding of the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA), of which she is a leader, was repudiated by Wits students. At the heart of this was their demand that the university employ all outsourced workers before classes could resume.
From 1999, universities across South Africa began outsourcing work to private companies. This led to the retrenchment of many workers – workers whose children would no longer have access to free education at Wits. The wages of those re-employed by private companies were slashed and they lost many benefits.
The stalemate between the students was later discussed at a “secret” PYA meeting, where claims emerged that Mkhatshwa had betrayed students.
“The SRC didn’t seem pleased with our demand [to continue the shutdown] and deliberately tried to hide their notes at the secret PYA meeting,” said a student who worked closely with the #FeesMustFall leaders.
“We managed to tear some notes out of them [their books], which we later put together and figured out that they had actually planned on ending the shut-down despite the majority of the students wishing to continue. It seems they had only wished to secure this ‘victory’ for their own political gains.”
A few weeks later, Mkhatshwa appeared on the cover of Destiny magazine wearing an ANC doek. It served only to further tarnish her credibility among Wits students.
“Her cover on Destiny magazine also made her even less popular as people saw her as using the movement for her own populism by creating this idea that she was the face of FMF [#FeesMustFall]. People didn’t like the fact that she was so closely aligned to the ANC. She would always come to class with an entourage of ANC supporters,” said another student leader who participated in planning meetings for last year’s shutdown.
Fast-forward nearly 11 months and Mkhatshwa has played a much more muted, albeit still crucial, role.
Her popularity among the student populace seems to have waned, with a current SRC member saying that “too many people are asking what happened to her”.
“She actually needs to speak out … because the students think we are sidelining her but she’s taking part in meetings,” said the SRC member, who did not wish to be named.
Mkhatshwa has appeared as a Wits representative at the fees commission and has made brief appearances at police stations and courts in Johannesburg to help secure the release of arrested students, while negotiating with university management on the SRC’s demand for free education – efforts that have hardly been acknowledged.
Instead students booed and jeered when her name was mentioned at an informal Wits assembly held two weeks ago, where the students’ demands were finalised.
The university’s current SRC secretary general Fasiha Hassan said there has been a concerted move to avoid “personalities being idolised”, and the secretariat was mandated to speak on behalf of all leaders.
“It’s an awkward situation. Last year, we were chastised because they said Ulo [Mkhatshwa] was the face of the movement; this year we have tried not to make it about the leadership but there is still a backlash.” Hassan said.
Her fall from grace was too much for Mkhatshwa to discuss. “I’m willing to speak in about six months’ time or a year. Only because [my view] won’t be understood in a manner I want it to be understood,” she said.
With a month left until the academic year winds up, there are doubts about Mkhatshwa’s ability to redeem herself.
Another Wits student leader, who did not wish to be named, said the focus should be on the incoming 2017 SRC, who “deserves the full support of students”.
“Whatever she (Mkhatshwa) does now or says about being sidelined, it will only sink her further. The students have made up their minds.”