It would be a mistake to treat the student protests that began in South Africa in 2015, and which had as their primary demand the scraping of all tuition fees at public universities, as a string of isolated incidents. In my view, this student movement is not unlike many of the service delivery protests that rage every week in this nation’s many slums. People are crying out to their government for help, and they are frustrated that all these years after colonialism and apartheid, many of the conditions that obtained during these historical epochs are still very much alive. The #FeesMustFall movement, as the student movement has come to be known, is quite easily explicable by surveying the socio-economic conditions that currently obtain in South Africa, more than 22 years since the end of Apartheid, and its system of arbitrary privilege.

Although some progress has been made in improving the lives of blacks in South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994, not much seems to have changed. Poverty remains wide-spread among blacks. Recent studies have found that around 12 million citizens live in extreme poverty. The Wealth-gap between whites and blacks has not budged a notch. Data released by Research Project on Employment, Income Distribution and Inclusive Growth at the University of Cape Town, show that 10% of South Africans own at least 90–95% of all assets.

The gap between black and white families in terms of income has remained quite significant, with the top 10% of South Africa’s income earners (typically whites), earning almost 60% of all incomes. According to STATS SA, the average white family make five times the average black family. Access to education and skills unsurprisingly tracks this income-gap. The more you earn the better your ability to access (essentially buy) more skills for yourself and for your children. Meanwhile, access to proper housing, sanitary facilities and community policing programs has only slightly improved. Government data shows that about 11% of South Africa’s families, mainly black and colored families, still live in structures that are classified as informal.

What is more, according to a recent study, only about 23% of the stocks traded on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange belong, directly or indirectly, to black people, who make up more than 80% of South Africa’s population. In 1994, 80% of arable land (or farmland) in South Africa was held by whites, who make only 8% of the population. By some estimates, no more than 10% of that land has been transferred to black South Africans since 1994.

The link between this socio-economic situation in South Africa and public demands for justice and greater or equal access to every facet of society, such as #FeesMustFall movement, is clear for all to see. In a report by the South African Institute of Justice and Reconciliation, this sentiment is expressed thus, “during the course of 2015–2016, the frustrations resulting from vast socioeconomic inequalities found [and is still finding] an outlet in the national student protests for free higher education in South Africa. Under the banner of “#FeesMustFall”, multiple layers of advantage and disadvantage, of access and non-access, of inclusion and exclusion became apparent –prompting for the need of a much deeper understanding of South Africans’ lived realities of socioeconomic inequalities, as well as the obstacles and aids to social mobility.”

The #FeesMustFall movement’s demand for free, quality tertiary education is therefore a demand for the government to begin instituting policies aimed at bridging the gap between those with the income to gain access to an education and those without it. The direness of the socio-economic life of most South Africans has precipitated the series of mass actions (protest, sit-ins, strikes and stay-aways) that have taken place at several South African public universities under the banner of the #FeesMustFall movement, beginning in 2015.

But the #FeesMustFall movement did not spring out of thin air. It is the rational culmination of many years of mass action by students at different universities in South Africa. Students have been marching, staying-away, sitting-in and striking long before 2015, in multiple attempts improve their plight. This year, for instance, students at the University of Fort Hare, went on a month-long stay-away campaign (from late march to late April) in order to improve the conditions of their residences, which they said were in poor condition. These kinds of action occurred, and continue to occur, at universities around the country with some frequency. The #FeesMustFall movement was one of the first occasions in post-Apartheid South Africa where students from many different public universities coordinated their efforts toward a unified end.

The #FeesMustFall movement also needs to be viewed in the context of other popular student movements that came to prominence at around the same time. The #RhodesMustFall movement, for example, which originated at the university of Rhodes (now referred to by some students as “the university formally known as Rhodes”) at Grahamstown, demanded that the statue of the colonialist Cecil John Rhodes along with other pieces of colonial iconoclasm (including the curriculum) be removed from campus. In the view of these students, that statue and the curriculum represent an episode in the history of South Africa which we have no interest in glorifying with statues in public places. The #RhodesMustFall movement sparked a movement around the country, as several statues of colonialists were defaced in several cities.

Both the #FeesMustFall movement and the #RhodesMustFall movement have a similar underlying theme, although some have disputed this. While the former movement is aimed at countering the effects of continued economic disadvantage of majority of South Africans that proceed primarily along racial lines, which has its roots in colonialism and apartheid, the latter sought to dethrone the physical reminders of that colonial past. This was made clear in a report by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, which found that “issues of decolonization and transformation were central themes promoted by those involved in the protests.”

Now, while the #FeesMustFall protests have been largely peaceful, some of them have turned violent, prompting what some view as heavy-handed police response, in many cases. Such incidents of violence have received wide-spread condemnation in the media. Many have argued that fighting against institutional disadvantage does not entitle the students to violent action, which typically come in the form of destruction of school facilities and vehicles. But while this is an important point, many leaders of the movement believe that what is missing in all the criticism leveled against students is the acknowledgement that the students themselves experience their day-to-day conditions of life as a form of violence. One of the leaders I spoke to at the University of Fort Hare told me, “if you cannot get an education, you cannot get a good job, and without a good job you are likely to be poor, unable to afford some necessities of life. Is that not a form of violence in its own right?”

But believe it or not, thus far in 2017, there have been very few #FeesMustFall protests. At my university, the University of Fort Hare, in the Eastern Cape, students have not marched against fees this year (which is not to say they have not marched against other ills). This may be due to a number of factors. Toward the end of 2016, the government announced a series of steps it would be taking to help students from poor and middle-class families gain access to education. One such measure was to increase the funds available to students through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), in order to cover any increases to tuition. The government also placed an embargo on tuition fee increases of more than 8%. In the mean time, the ANC-led government has continued to pledge more action to help students gain access to education.

However, the absence of #FeesMustFall protests does not mean that talk of the fees debacle has disappeared on campus. It is playing a significant role in campus-wide Student Representative Council (SRC) elections. Here at the University of Fort Hare, the parties that led much of the #FeesMustFall activities, and have put forward a clear policy regarding how to continue that fight have performed well. This year, the Pan Africanist Student Movement of Azania (PASMA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command (EFFSC) have made significant gains, at the expense of the ANC-linked South African Students Congress (SASCO). According to reporting by the Mail & Guardian, on the 3rd of May, 2017, these two parties have also made significant gains at the University of Cape Town. Like their mother-bodies in national politics, these parties articulated what many have perceived as a clear vision and strategy for dealing with the issues students face every day, which result from their socio-economic disadvantages.

Also, there have been events on campuses meant to provide forums for students to engage intellectually with the issues around the #FeesMustFall movement. For example, here at the University of Fort Hare, the philosophy department is organizing a symposium, which is to take place later this year, in which we hope to invite speakers from all around South Africa to discuss the #FeesMustFall movement as part of the decolonization project.

These kinds of activities, which provide an avenue for discussion and engagement with the historical role of the movement and its aims, are increasingly necessary. The attitudes of upper-middle class, mostly white, students, toward the #FeesMustFall campaigners, have sometimes been unwelcoming and unaccommodating. The feeling among the leaders of the #FeesMustFall movement is that because these students do not have to endure the same circumstances from which the black students come, they have, in many cases, viewed the protests simply as unnecessary and uncomfortable disruptions to their academic pursuit.

This was brought to my attention recently when I came across a group of white students discussing the #FeesMustFall movement. The questions that were foremost in their minds included questions like, “who will pay for it (that is, free education)?” “why do I have to delay my degree if my parents can afford to pay my fees?” etc. While these questions are legitimate questions to ask from an individual’s perspective, the feeling among many #FeesMustFall campaigners is that answers to them have to be sought with the context of South Africa’s history in mind. Forums, like the one being organized by the philosophy department here at the University of Fort Hare, may be quite helpful in engaging with these questions in a serious way.

Clearly, the #FeesMustFall movement is going nowhere. It is going to be with us into the foreseeable future, for as long that the socio-economic conditions that provide it fodder persist. The sooner South African society begins to deal with the socio-economic reasons most families are unable to afford the education of their wards, it seems to me, the sooner the impulse behind the protests can be addressed. I think that an immediate way to begin dealing with this is to scrap tuition fees at all state universities. In my view, Fees falling, as opposed to what many black students seem to think, is not the last step on the transformation ladder, it is the first, and perhaps even the easiest. Whether that will be done, nonetheless, we will have to wait and see.

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