In October 2015, we saw one of the biggest student protests in post apartheid Africa. Students from tertiary institutions protesting against fee increments and called for “free quality Afrocentric socialist education.” Outsourced workers at the instutions joined the protest action calling for insourcing. So much has been written on the campaign and what lessons that can be learnt from it.
The protest was a response to proposed fee hikes by the institutions.
Court interdict and confrontation with the police
Universities’ Vice Chancellors and councils responded by getting court orders against the protesting students.
It started with the University of Cape Town, UCT, on the 19th of October. The UCT court order contained a list of respondents who were forbidden from protesting and it was directed at students organizations like SASCO, PASMA, UCT Left Students Movement and bizarrely also included the hashtag #FeesMustFall. A hashtag (#) is a way for people to search for tweets or facebook posts that have a common topic.
Institutions like the University of Stellenbosch, Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and the University of Free State where the Vice Chancellor, Jonathan Jansen recently argued during the Stephen Ellis Memorial lecture that “many of the disruptions at the former white English universities is a kind of gangsterism masquerading as progressive politics,” all obtained court orders against the protesting students.
Other institutions of higher learning got court orders at a much later stage of the nationwide student protests.
As predicted the court orders aggravated the protesting students who viewed them as negotiating in bad faith. The consequences of that were confrontation with the police. The university management which is supposed to be adept at negotiating skills deflected their responsibility to the police.
Brutal force by the police and use of private security as well as private-paramilitary mercenaries
The violent scenes outside parliament on the 21st of October, is perhaps one of the issues that has marked #FeesMustFall and captures the view of many about the militarization of the police.
The sounds of stun grenades, pictures of students scurrying around looking for cover, the human chain mainly by white students from UCT to prevent the arrests of their protesting black counterparts, students including female students being manhandled and dragged on the ground by the members of Public Order Policing (POP) unit at the parliament precinct are etched in the memory of many students and South Africans.
The brute force and heavy handedness of the police led to a public outcry. With the help of the Legal Resource Centre (LRC), parents and students obtained a court order preventing the police from using “unreasonable force against the students.”
According to a report on Public Order Policing in South Africa conducted by criminologist, Irvin Kinnes there needs to be a beefing up of human resource capacity of the unit. Kinnes also recommended that the members of the unit be trained on a regular basis. The report also argues for more female members of the unit.
Kinnes suggests that police presence during protests or strikes fuels violence and he warned against the politicization of the police where the police are the ones who have to deal and resolve service delivery issues.
When Elitsha went to the University of Stellenbosch on the morning of the 21st of October, we were greeted by a group of men in black jackets and pants. As the students were making their way to various departments and lecture halls calling on other students to join them in the protest, some of the men in black were following the students together with the police. Some were manning the entrance of the admin building.
On the 30th of October at the University of the Western Cape, we came across the same faces we saw at Stellenbosch University the week before. After ignoring the call to a meeting from students, UWC hired the services of Vetus Schola, a paramilitary security company linked to right-wing apartheid-era military veterans.
Vetus Schola has been used by Anglo American in 2012, to provide security during a strike at Kumba Iron Ore’s Sishen mine. Farm owners in the Western Cape also used their services during the farmworkers strike of 2012. Most of those who were deployed at UWC had foreign accents that suggested that they were from the DRC.
As a result of the court orders obtained by the institutions and the heavy handedness of the South African Police Service, a large number of students was arrested.
Democratic control and rise of collective voices
One thing that the campaign brought back to the centre of social movements was the issue of democratic control. Even though at Wits University it looked like the SRC was running the show, they were getting their mandate directly from the students.
Mass meetings would go for on a whole day into the early hours of the morning with students discussing the issues and shaping the way forward. Every point had to be discussed at length, students persuading each other and arguing for their points of view. #FeesMustFall was run by students from student organizations aligned to political parties (SASCO/PYA, PASMA, EFFSC, DASO) as well as non-aligned student bodies (like RhodesMustFall, Aluta, PatriachyMustFall and Trans Collective) and individuals. But this does not mean that SRC members were not involved, nor that one group could not dominate.
At the University of Cape Town, the current SRC was not at the front of the campaign. In fact, the groups and the collectives made the SRC redundant. “We have taken the power and now its back to the students, the masses, we made it clear to the VC that if he insists on speaking to the SRC, it will not take the struggle anywhere,” said Masixole Mlandu of UCT FeesMustFall.
At Stellenbosch University, things were different. When Maties students gathered at the Rooi Plein amphitheatre to have a meeting, the tensions between SASCO and DASO were clear. Also the tensions between SASCO members who are in the SRC, Lwazi Pakade and SRC Chairperson Axolile Diamond Qina were visible. Students wearing SASCO T-shirts were booing and heckling Qina as he was addressing the students. They were shouting Lwazi’s name. One of the students shouted “where were you when we were roughed up by the police last night.” Qina continued with his speech amidst the heckling.
Even though SASCO has been able to dominate the meetings, the Open Stellenbosch collective has been instrumental in the struggle against high fees at the university.
The role of the SRC and how it was not a legitimate voice of #FeesMustFall was behind the crisis at UWC. The Rector for a long time refused to recognize the collectives from PASMA, EFFSC and Aluta as legitimate voices. Tyrone Pretorius, the Vice Chancellor of UWC, refused to acknowledge the collectives and he insisted on speaking to the SASCO-led SRC that was not prominent during the struggle. It is worth noting that even before #FeesMustFall, student organisations at the University of the Western Cape were planning to interdict the results of SRC elections, claiming that there were irregularities in the process. The student organizations claim that the ballot boxes were tampered with and that some students were allowed to vote twice.
Progressive Youth Alliance/SASCO involvement in #FeesMustFall
From the beginning of #FeesMustFall, students were determined to put their party affiliation aside in favour of a broad campaign on issues facing students and workers at institutions of higher learning. The picture of Wits PYA/SASCO and EFF SC leaders displayed what can be achieved through unity. From the onset, the campaign was about the overlapping systems of oppression namely race, gender and class. The students were always showing unity but the cracks started to show when the Gauteng students marched on Luthuli House. Throughout the protest those who are in power were made to sit down as a symbolic gesture that “they had to humble themselves”.
Wits students had earlier made the Vice Chancellor, Adam Habib sit down amongst them. On all campuses management were all made to sit down. But when Gwede Mantashe and Cosatu’ president, Sdumo Dlamini refused to sit down, the PYA and SASCO did not object. Instead they let it become a matter between Vuyani of EFF SC and Gwede.
The cracks in the movement started showing from there. The meeting with President Zuma raised eyebrows. He called SRCs and even party youth leaders though it was student collectives that were the voice of #FeesMustFall. This meeting that struck an agreement on behalf of the students and government excluded the majority of student voices.
At the University of Cape Town, the tensions between SASCO and other student organizations like Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) had been festering for a while. In August, the RMF had organized a Marikana Solidarity march and the absence of UCT SASCO was conspicuous after they were involved in the removal of the statue in April.
But after the meeting in the Union Buildings and the subsequent announcement on fee freeze for 2016, PYA and SASCO announced a victory even though some of the issues and demands were not met for example the insourcing of workers’ employment. But more importantly there was no commitment to the principle of free quality tertiary education. At Wits, the PYA and SASCO had a separate meeting and there are allegations that it was at that meeting where they decided to pull out of the protest action. The other student formations, collectives and the workers were still involved in the protest while PYA and SASCO were changing their tune.
At UCT the students were protesting in solidarity with the workers who were fighting for insourcing. After the fee freeze announcement SASCO pulled out of the protest. Their main concern became about exams that were going to be disrupted by those who were still protesting in solidarity with the workers.The narrative of #Protestnpass was dominating social media.
At the University of the Western Cape, the SASCO led SRC was calling for an end to the protest. Students from formations like PASMA, EFFSC, Aluta and individual students were still trying to get a meeting with the Vice Chancellor. Vuyani Sokhaba, the former SRC president at UWC said that their role as SASCO is that of “complementing and contradicting the African National Congress”. Sokhaba is a masters student at UWC.
However, Masixole Mlandu from UCT #FeesMustFall believes that there were committees that are controlled by the ruling party and have been mandated to be at the forefront of the campaign to claim victory and gain momentum for the 2016 local government elections. “ But the people are awake and they can never fight an idea whose time has arrived,” said Mlandu.
After the fee freeze announcement by President Zuma, it was also alleged that Wits PYA/SASCO had a separate meeting and unlike in the past where everything was thrashed out in a mass meeting, PYA/SASCO had its own meeting. This is where the divisions became clear and there were scuffles at Senate House (renamed Solomon Mahlangu House by the students). Among those who attended the secret meeting was Thuthukile Zuma, the daughter of the president. In the midst of all that, Wits issued a statement confirming a deal with the SRC. Presumably they had agreed on the plan that vice-chancellor Adam Habib presented earlier in the day.
Media Coverage of #FeesMustFall
Mainstream media came under scrutiny during the protests for emphasizing the “violence” at the expense of their overwhelming peaceful nature . Professor Jane Duncan of the University of Johannesburg refers to this as the “protest paradigm”, where the focus is on events for example like the burning of tyres and not on the movement’s medics who have tended to broken limbs, teargas exposure and asthamatic seizures.
Duncan conducted research on the media’s coverage of the Marikana Massacre in 2012 and concluded that local media captured the bloody battle from a vantage point that saw them in the safe embrace of the police and by doing so supported the police narrative.
The long student meetings, where the debates that shaped #FeesMustFall were not covered by mainstream media since it does not fit their news paradigm. Some protestors burning tyres and blocking the roads is more important than the students debating the real challenge of exams and trying to find a solution to it.
Most of the debates took place at night when the media had gone to sleep. The students’ insistence, especially at institutions like UCT, on keeping the movement flat or without a hierarchy presented problems for mainstream media reportage. The media is used to having people who are official sources and carry certain power. But, the fact that they were insisting on being leaderless made reporting difficult for mainstream media.
There were no official press releases or spokespersons. Instead students were using social media, especially Twitter to spread the message and tell their side of the story.
Every decision that was taken had to go through a rigorous process of discussion and consensus had to be reached. The discussions were outside of the mainstream news paradigm and never made headlines.
Professor Duncan argues that since the mainstream media portrayed the protests in a negative light it could have given the police the impression that public opinion or sympathy is on their side and encouraged them to start attacking the students.
Most of the pictures where the police clashed with the students, at for example the University of the Western Cape, the reporters were behind or with the police. This vantage point supported the police narrative.
Protests move to the 2nd stage in the Western Cape
Following the gains that were made during the first stage of and demands that were not met by university management, the students at the Western Cape institutions took # FeesMustFall to the second stage. Students at UWC and CPUT demanded the scrapping of historical debt and the university management responded by hitting the students with court orders resulting in increased police brutality against protesting students.
At the University of the Western Cape the students of #UWCFeesMustFall negotiated with the Vice Chancellor, Tyrone Pretorius after the intervention of the Chancellor, Archbishop Thabo Mokgoba, after weeks of talking past each other.
The VC was insisting that they only recognize the SRC as the voice of the students and was not prepared to negotiate with the #FeesMustFall delegation.
After a mass meeting with leaders of #UWCFeesMustFall and the SRC there was some headway with some of the issues. But, the students claim that they were angered by the email response of the university council chairperson to some of the issues that they discussed. The email from Mthunzi Mdwaba painted a picture that the agreement that the students had with the VC earlier was null and void.
Earlier the students and the VC had agreed on allowances for the workers and improved transport arrangements for students who live in the residential area of Belhar for example. But, the tone of the email and the dismissive manner of the council chairperson brought back the tensions between management and the workers. This resulted in the burning of Residence Life building and the arrest of three students. There was also a meeting that was organized by a small group of students, alumni, parents and staff calling for “for exams to be written in a peaceful environment.”
Chaired by Wandisile Mdepa, the governance officer at UWC and the former SASCO and SRC president at UWC. Most of the speakers at the meeting were condemning the students for vandalism and threatening those who wanted to write exams. Present at the meeting was the ANCWL and Andile Lili, Jabu Mfusi, Muhammad Sayed and former UWC president Mzwandile Mawela.
The UWC Alumni Western Cape chairperson, Claude Smith said that they want things at the university to return to normal and condemned the vandalism and threats to students who wanted to write exams. Asked about the presence and use of Vetus Schola, the para-military private company that uses mercenaries, Smith replied that it was unfortunate that the university had to get the services of a company like that.
At the University of Johannesburg, 141 students and workers were arrested after the university got court interdicts preventing them from protesting on campus. A deal was struck on the insourcing of workers that the workers were initially not happy with. They now have agreed to insource all the workers by June 2017.
At UCT the workers rejected “insourcing in principle” and wanted to negotiate the terms before the end of their contracts. The rumblings of discontent within NEHAWU have grown louder and lots of workers and members have lost trust in the union at UCT. Union members claim that the UCT branch of NEHAWU did not enter negotiations with the workers’ real interests in mind. Instead, they accused the union of working too closely with the university management.
The CPUT #FeesMustFall movement say that there are significant discrepancies between what was agreed to by the university council and what the vice-chancellor and the university administration are now undertaking to do. Most contentious is the issue of student debt. This led to a confrontation with the police, who despite the court order preventing them from using excessive force used stun grenades, rubber bullets and raided student residences looking for students to arrest. This resulted with in several arrests.
The bail for the 16 UWC and 43 CPUT students was set at R3,000 per student. But through support from the community all the bail money was raised and the students were later released. Exams at UWC and CPUT were written off campus, at the Bellville Velodrome and Wingfield Military base