The student strike at Wits University gained momentum when the vice chancellor and his executive deadlocked in negotiations with maybe 2,000 students in the occupied Senate House (renamed Solomon Mahlangu House) over a fee hike of 10.5% for next year.
When in April this year students at the University of Cape Town mobilised to win the demand for the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, Wits University students seemed passive, resigned to a campus politics dominated by the sparring between the Progressive Youth Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters. Fast forward 6 months, on the eve of final examinations, Wits erupted in protest after the announcement by university management of a 10.5% increase in fees. #FeesMustFall, the movement went viral, spreading to university campuses around the country. Reports of activists entering a Khayelitsha supermarket demanding that the price of bread must fall as well carried early signs that this movement was an uprising in the making.
What started out on the morning of Wednesday, 14 October, with a small group of student activists blocking the entrances to Wits University grew spontaneously into a mass movement. The university was effectively shutdown while the vice-chancellor, Adam Habib, attending a higher education and training inter-ministerial committee meeting in Durban downplayed the disruption as led by only “200 students.” By the time of his return on Friday the 16th, he was encircled by thousands of protestors on the concourse of the administrative building, renamed ‘Solomon Mahlangu House’. An agreement with the protestors was reached only in the early hours of Saturday morning, stipulating that any proposal from the University Council on fees would have to be approved by the assembly as the actual highest decision-making body in the university.
Allegations of violence were immediately levelled against the protestors, voiced by some (privileged) students and unsympathetic staff, echoed by commercial media and repeated by a vice-chancellor looking to undermine the protest. These allegations were soon muted by the real experience of activists who had been pepper sprayed, throttled by private security and threatened by snarling motorists. It is thanks to social media that these experiences could be publicised. As the movement became known as one led by women, inclusive of all races and sexualities, as deeply principled and as responsible to their learning, all parties wanted to be associated with it. Public support was effusive. Celebrities came out to support the protest even though they were chased by students for wanting to steal the limelight.
The born-frees had indeed taken on the mantle of ’76 in tying issues of broad social transformation to the problem of access to education. Leaders intoned from several platforms, ‘This is a revolution’ and that victory was certain. Students responded with a conviction in the justice of their cause as the halls of Wits University reverberated with song. Why it has been students of this generation who have picked up the fallen spear of liberation can be guessed from the disappointments of liberation thus far. As one placard insightfully put it, In 1994, our parents were sold dreams. We’re only here for the refund. Universities are where inequalities are revealed starkly as students from poor communities, granted a National Student Financial Aid Scheme loan, sit alongside the children of the privileged. Before getting to university, they will not have had as clear a grasp of their disadvantage, that with the decline in the real value of their study loans and black tax to pay, becomes inescapable.
As the sparks of the protest spread, the chairperson of the NSFAS reported that despite an increased budget, the cost of a tertiary education meant that fewer students could be granted loans. This was even less consolation for the many students who are, like numerous placards testified, “too rich for NSFAS, too poor for an education.”
The heady promise of revolution was far from the mind of the Minister of Higher Education and SACP General Secretary, Dr Blade Nzimande, who refused to admit the shutdown of university campuses nationally represented a crisis. On Tuesday, 20 October, he called vice chancellors of the country’s universities and student representatives to Cape Town and reached an agreement that the fee increase for 2016 would be no more than 6%. The students were derisory: ‘Dear Blade, must 0% look like a beer bottle for you to understand?’ read a subsequent placard. “Blade is insulting us as students. We are academics, we are intellectuals. Capping the fees doesn’t make sense,” said Naledi Chirwa of EFF’s student command at the University of Pretoria.
The failure by Nzimande to recognise the gravity of the situation radicalised the students further. The demand for free education superseded the call for no fee increase. On the eighth day of the #FeesMustFall uprising at Wits University, the students with some extra support from the University of Johannesburg, and some activists attending ILRIG‘s Globalisation School, marched on the ANC’s headquarters, Luthuli House. PYA speakers in the university assembly before the march told the protestors that they would be reminding the ANC of its official policy that education should be free. On the other side of Mandela Bridge (apparently opened for the protest to cross by Ahmed Kathrada), the movement proved too robust for the ruling party to capture.
A stage and PA system decked out in party regalia pulled up behind the march on arrival at Luthuli House. As the leaders jostled for space on the platform, a chant that ‘This is not an ANC rally’ rose up from the crowd. Gwede Mantashe who had come out to receive the memorandum was denied the opportunity to speak and told to sit down. But the protestors allowed the march to dissipate once the memorandum of just two demands – for free education and an end to outsourcing – was accepted. Mantashe said in a statement afterwards that “the demands of the students, including that there are no fee hikes next year, were reasonable and understandable in view of the high cost of tertiary education.”
On the ninth day since it announced itself to the country, the #FeesMustFall movement turned its attention to the seat of executive power of government. With their numbers bussed in from universities campuses in Johannesburg and Pretoria as well as from Limpopo and the North West province, thousands of students converged on the Union Buildings in Pretoria. Like the ANC had attempted to do the day before, the party in power appeared to be planning to capture the movement and a stage had been set up just beyond a boundary fence in preparation for a presumed address by the president.
President Jacob Zuma was inside meeting with selected representatives of student organisations, while the masses grew increasingly restless outside. By 1pm, portaloos had been set ablaze and when the fence between the police and the masses was first breached, police started throwing their stun grenades. Students hurled bricks to force their retreat, the line of riot shields backing off to fill the gaps between a truck and police Nyalas. The standoff was broken by teargas, dropped from the helicopter that was circling constantly overhead, that sent the mass of protesters fleeing, not for the first time that afternoon.
After the dispersal of the crowd, a peaceful occupation of the inner boundary was led by regrouped students holding their hands aloft. The police relented and what followed was a tolerated sit-in, a long wait in the hot sun ‘to be addressed’ by the President. Reports of a deal struck between Zuma and the student representatives of a 0% increase in fees for 2016 came to them via the media instead. The perceived insult caused tensions to resume as rocks once more were launched at government representatives. The police then fired rubber bullets and teargas to clear the students out of the Union Buildings grounds and Pretoria city.
The presidential announcement failed to demobilise students. The pressure on ANC allies in the student movement to bring the movement to its preferred ending was intensified. At Wits University, students’ unity could not withstand the pressure, on top of the looming exams to study for; a closed meeting of PYA representatives on the Sunday after the battle of Pretoria was disrupted by students. Notes were torn from the SRC president’s diary and displayed as proof of the PYA’s betrayal of the movement. The circumstances of a meeting held to discuss #FeesMustFall were suspicious: the persons in that meeting with the PYA-led SRC were from provincial and national structures whereas all decisions with respect to the movement were, as a matter of principle, to be taken in open, democratic assemblies.
Despite the SRC leaders’ insistence on their loyalty to the movement, students refused thereafter to recognise their leadership. And despite an announcement by the university management that they had agreed with the SRC to re-open Wits on Tuesday, 27 October, students returned to the barricades until the demand to #Endoutsourcing was met. The demand to in-source services like cleaning and catering was set by the movement at its outset. In fact, a week prior to #FeesMustFall, there was a demonstration in support of outsourced workers on campus and the adoption of a Workers Charter, under the hashtags #Oct6 and #Decolonise. And while outsourcing remained an ongoing violation of workers’ rights and dignity, the #FeesMustFall insisted, the shutdown of the university would have to continue.
That it did continue is despite efforts by many students to win the position to sit for exams. The SRC was excluded from discussions and students who had over the course of the campaign become conscious of an historical mission beyond the completion of their studies, would not relent. They withstood numerous standoffs with private security and police in claiminng the victory to end outsourcing.
According to the agreement reached between Wits University management, services will be in-sourced. For the workers, this means a restoration of their rights to organise freely and to be accorded full membership of the university community. Their children can in future register to study for discounted fees. The announcement of the agreement was made to a Solomon Mahlangu House packed with expectant workers. Joy at a struggle won was rapturous. Victories like these are too few but coming in just two and a half weeks of hard struggle, an amazing demonstration of what collective action can achieve.