/ 1 November 2016

South African students across the UK march in solidarity with #FeesMustFall

Students march past the Radcliffe Camera during protest
Students march past the Radcliffe Camera during protest

A group of South African students in the United Kingdom have been talking animatedly about the student protests back home. Today, they will march to the South African High Commission to demand that government prioritise the fees crisis in higher education.

Kgotsi Chikane (25) is a master’s student in public policy at Oxford University. Last year, Chikane was among a number of students arrested outside the gates of Parliament in Cape Town as former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene announced the midterm budget. Despite the physical distance between himself and students in South Africa, he has watched as Fees Must Fall protests took root countrywide once again and, along with a group of students and the help of social media, a decision to protest in the UK was made.

“We believe that the current system is unjust to students who are in the higher education and unjust to students who are in basic education who have to come to our higher education. Because of that and because we all believe that we are inherently linked to the future of the country, we all inherently believe then that we have a responsibility to do something,” Chikane told the Mail & Guardian.

The message of free education is one that people can relate to globally, Chikane says. He believes that students in the UK have been able to connect around the Fees Must Fall protests to show solidarity to students in South Africa because it is an idea worth fighting for.

“The connection to the idea is more powerful than wanting to protest. It’s beautiful in many ways and I think students are doing the right thing. This is why we are throwing our voice behind them,” he said.

Decolonisation, power and developed world vs developing world
Students from Oxford University, the University of Brighton and the University of Manchester began interacting two weeks ago via Skype to share their ideas on the South African students’ protests. They held dialogues in their various institutions and started a WhatsApp group to communicate more effectively. From there, they decided that they would march on November 1 to the South African High Commission in solidarity with students in South Africa.

The solidarity protest isn’t the first of its kind in the UK, particularly in Oxford. Ntokozo Qwabe, a South African student who studied at Oxford, followed in the steps of students from the University of Cape Town to campaign for the statue of Rhodes at Oxford’s Oriel College to be removed

Decolonisation isn’t a central demand of the Fees Must Fall solidarity march, but it is a concern of students who will protest. Chikane says that, although the UK has more wealth, power and privilege than South Africa, the calls for decolonisation are about breaking down power so that it is distributed equally to all people, instead of held in the hands of a few.

“Decolonisation has different meanings: it’s not isolated to a country that is underprivileged or a country that has been oppressed. You could live in the most beautiful country such as Denmark and still undergo colonial oppression,” he said.

“The idea of decolonisation is to say that society thinks in a particular way and what we are trying to say is that society shouldn’t think in one particular way. Society should be thinking in multiple different ways,” Chikane added.

Chikane says that government response to student protests has been inadequate despite the recurring student protests that have happened in South Africa over many years. The aim of the march on Tuesday is to apply pressure on government to put free education at the top of the national agenda. 

Government and police

The students will make three demands to the South African High Commission: 

  • Government must prioritise student demands; 
  • Police and private security must be removed from universities; and
  • When police react to students, they must do so with restraint.

“The first demand is that government come to the table. The lack of commitment, the lack of trying to engage, the lack of trying to resolve the issue that is actually a problem they created in the first place is helping to fuel the tensions on campus,” Chikane said.

Over the past year, he says, university management at various institutions has had the opportunity to engage with students, but the presence of police and private security has been a signal that vice-chancellors have not seized these opportunities.

“We see university spaces as a place for debate. How you debate can be a completely different discussion, but the presence of police on universities creates a dynamic where one party can quell debate simply by using force,” Chikane says.

He says students in the UK have had differing opinions about the protests in South Africa, but have been able to connect around these demands to see progress back home. The students will march at 12pm (2pm South African time) from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London to the South African High Commission. The walk will be a quick 15 minutes, Chikane says, but he hopes it will leave a more lasting impact.

“We are all inherently tied to the country in one way or another, and because of that we have a responsabilty to ensure we protect the country from any unjust system,” he said.