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FMF leaders unite and it’s not ‘business as usual’ for universities

The leaders of student organisations and #FeesMustFall protests from across South Africa ­converged in Cape Town this week to marshal their resources and thrash out a new strategy to take their fight for free education forward.

The strategy includes a plan to recruit high school learners into marches on government departments and private companies — and mobilising taxi drivers, serving staff and outsourced workers.

“We are pulling in high school pupils to make sure that the free education protest is maintained by new university entrants,” said Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp) spokesperson Mametlwe Sebei.

“Next time we will rally taxi drivers at the ranks to ask them to come and support us — along with vulnerable workers such as waiters in restaurants,” said Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command president Mpho Morolane.

More than a thousand students united to march on Parliament on Wednesday, as Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan delivered his mid-term budget policy statement. The marching students clashed with police, who used rubber bullets and stun grenades to subdue them.

Footage of the clashes portrayed the student march as disorganised and chaotic — but it was in fact driven by meticulous planning, the Mail & Guardian has learned.

While Gordhan prepared to take centre stage in Parliament for the first time since fraud charges were brought against him, the leaders of different student organisations boarded flights and buses in Johannesburg, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape to head to Cape Town for the march on Parliament.

“There was national co-ordination — everybody agreed that [student leaders] needed to come together. All provinces of Sasco were represented in Cape Town,” said South African Students Congress (Sasco) national organiser Lwando Majiza.

Wasp said it started sending out SMSes and notifications on WhatsApp to all outsourced workers at the University of the Western Cape, the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and Stellenbosch University on Tuesday evening, urging them to down tools and participate in the march.

“It’s a united front of sorts — the student organisations along with the workers,” Sebei said.

By Wednesday morning, representatives from Sasco, the South African Union of Students, the Pan Africanist Student Movement of Azania, the EFF Student Command and the Wasp youth wing had congregated with #FeesMustFall and #OutsourcingMustFall students and workers in the streets of Cape Town. Together, they marched to the gates of Parliament.

“We marched peacefully until police provoked us … [After the march] we assisted comrades with strategies to deal with [the] police assault on us and search for us. This march has also given us an opportunity to tell leaders from across the country about our experiences and plan our next move,” said #FeesMustFall KwaZulu-Natal co-ordinator Sthembiso KaShandu.

Student movement leaders say that the general sympathy with the call for free education has made it easier for them to win support.

“It is not difficult to draw the numbers because there is a general consensus … But of course, there is some hostility towards the structures aligned to the ANC. This is not a partisan struggle,” Morolane said.

Student leaders remain acutely aware of attempts by the police to track them down and arrest them. Morolane said it’s been three weeks since he slept at his own house.

“I go [home] to get clothes, then go into hiding because we are strategising and planning. Even when we are marching, there are people who look like students but are part of the State Security Agency; others are masquerading as journalists,” Morolane said.

A student leader who asked not to be named said he is too afraid to mention the name of the B&B at which he is staying, out of fear that he’ll be caught by the police.

Three weeks ago the M&G revealed how student leaders had gone into hiding at the University of the Witwatersrand after being followed home and tracked down by police. KaShandu said since the interministerial task team on free education was established by Zuma, he’s had to be extra-careful.

“I’m just praying that I’ll be arrested in the company of other people, with witnesses. If I am alone and I get taken, I don’t know what will happen,” he said.

Sebei was asked to report to a police station in Pretoria this week to make a statement. “We are trying to build centres of provincial and, ultimately, national co-ordination of the student movement,” he said.

“As long as we fight in isolation on a campus basis, we will not defeat this government and achieve free education.”

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Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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