/ 9 March 2023

Why do the student protests seem different this year?

Both #rhodesmustfall And #feesmustfall And #blacklivesmatter Have Taken Place In Self Described Democratic Republics With A History Of Genocide Of Indigenous People
The students' demands and the reactions they solicit no longer match those of 2015’s #FeesMustFall – students need an actionable plan, funds, accommodation.

June 2022 marked seven years since the 2015 #FeesMustFall movement erupted across the country — causing shutdowns and protests. Those protests centred on free education, decolonising education and outsourcing work. Seven years later, the protestors’ demands have changed, as have the reactions they solicit

In 2021 and 2022, with universities mainly doing blended learning as a result of the Covid-19 regulations, there weren’t as many student protests because most were not attending classes full-time and in-person. But, with the start of the 2023 academic year, they are back full-time for face-to-face learning. And with that there have been a number of protests at the University of Cape Town, Cape Peninsula University of Technology and, most recently, the University of the Witwatersrand, University of Johannesburg, Tshwane University of Technology and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. 

This time the demands are different. The free education policy put in place by former president Jacob Zuma in 2017 has not been working. Every year hundreds of students find themselves without a place to continue their studies. The reason is the government has latched onto the free education policy but have not addressed the big issues of historical debt and the missing middle. The corruption and maladministration issues at the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) have also not been fixed. 

Historic debt is the balance of fees that NSFAS-funded students have to pay, which isn’t covered by their financial aid. Students have to scramble to cover them. Universities often block them from continuing their studies until the debt is settled. Then there is the missing middle — the category of student NSFAS considers “too rich” to be funded by the aid scheme, yet still struggle to scrape together fees. The free education policy was supposed to address this, but evidently it didn’t do it well enough.

Accommodation is another problem. This has been an issue since the 2015 and 2016 #FeesMustFall protests but has gained prominence over the years. One of the main reasons for this is a direct off-set of Zuma’s free education policy. A greater number of students have been allowed to register at institutions of higher learning, but provisions have not been adequately provided by the universities and the government. This means that hundreds of students arrive at universities and have no place to stay.

These are the basic issues that have dominated the student protests over the past four to five years. Students protest. The universities come up with a quick fix. Things go back to “normal”. But in the next academic year the same problems emerge again. 

For anyone outside universities, the only image they would get is the one that has been coming out of the Wits protests that began last Wednesday. Students disrupted classes, damaged property and took to the streets. There are murmurs on social media of “the violent students”, “the disruptive students”, “ungrateful” and so forth. There is little understanding of the structural issues that affect students’ access to and success in higher education.

The latest protests reflect a change in the public’s sentiment. Even though the #FeesMustFall protests were not universally received with enthusiasm by the public, by the end of the movement, there was broad understanding of the issues students faced. 

Today most people seem to be indifferent to the protests. There are the usual annoyances of road closures but, for the most part, people who are not directly affected are viewing it without feeling. Any empathy and sympathy towards students seem to be at an all-time low. Perhaps it’s because of the political and economic situation in the country, with many people facing the toughest of times. But this is ironic, given that the reality on our campuses are microcosms of society as a whole. 

For example, at the University of Johannesburg, one of the issues raised by students was about water supply. This is a plight that many people in the city will be able to relate to.

Universities also seem less inclined to listen to students. They cannot hold all the burden for the students’ grievances but they often seem uninterested in understanding the very people they are meant to be serving. 

Of course, the university has to worry about loss of teaching and learning, destruction of property and so on. They might also not be getting the support from the government and relevant ministries. Students are vital for universities, yet they are being criminalised by the institutions meant to help them and teach them. The increasing securitisation of campuses has for years been noted as hiking violence on campuses, but the universities do not seem to understand that. 

And the politicisation of protests? The dynamics of student politics have changed a lot and they are no longer dominated by student parties affiliated with the ANC. But those affiliated to the ruling party who run for student representative councils are viewed with suspicion by other student parties. During the #FeesMustFall movement, students affiliated with the ruling party were accused of “selling out” and this sentiment continues. 

Ultimately, lasting and sustainable solutions will be found only if all actors come to the table. Politicking needs to be left aside and students, the department of higher education and training and vice-chancellors from all affected universities, including the private sector, will need to come together. Not like some of the failed conferences and indabas that were held, but one with actual actionable and sustainable solutions. It shouldn’t take the loop of student protests to happen for all actors to spring into action and come up with a plan. 

Otherwise, the protests are going to continue and it will be anyone’s guess how they will unfold. 

Fatima Moosa is a journalist and writer and is doing her master’s degree in international relations. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.