This week has been one of the most physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting weeks of my life.
On Monday 19 October 2015 just passed midnight, Rhodes university students joined thousands of students across the South Africa to protest against fee increases in higher education. To give an idea of what we were dealing with, at Rhodes we do not have a registration fee. We have Minimum Initial Payment (MIP) which is half of our tuition for the year and is usually paid by the second week of January. In 2015, MIP was just over R41 000 if you are staying in residence. Because Rhodes is located in a small town in the middle of nowhere, the vast majority of students come from out of town, meaning that we have to pay for accommodation and residence is the most convenient option . The projected fee increase for 2016 would have set MIP at R45 000, and the total cost of fees at around R100 000. To make matters worse, the university was only planning on releasing the final fees on 8 December, giving families a little over a month to find tens of thousands of rands or risk their children losing their places in residences and not being able to register for 2016. Other universities such as Wits were dealing with over 10% increase while Stellenbosch was dealing with an increase of 11.5%.
The majority of students who would be affected by high fee increases are of course, poor and working class students who are mostly black. Then of course, there is the so-called “invisible middle class” consisting of the children of civil servants whose earn too much for them to qualify for the government funded NSFAS program but earn too little for them to be able to afford school fees. This means that, although poor and working class white students exist, the majority of people who would be shut out of higher education would be black. This is already problematic considering that we are living in a country where we are dealing with worsening youth unemployment rates and an awful economy, making a higher education more and more necessary in order to get a job.
So as students we went on strike for a 0% fee increase and a commitment to free higher education. We shut down our universities across the country by barricading entrances and ensuring that departments and other various buildings remained closed. We mobilized, every day and protested. And the results were horrific.
On Monday, we decided to join the students at the smaller Eastern Midlands College, another tertiary institution protesting against high fees after we had heard that the police fired rubber bullets at them on Friday. We joined them because we wanted to give them numbers and we knew that going to a respected, formerly white university gave us a certain level of privilege and exposure the EMC students did not have so we wanted to lend that to their cause. When we arrived the police were already there. They were armed and wearing bullet proof vests. Students had been locked out of the institution and were singing outside, demanding to be let in so they could talk to management. After being there for perhaps 30 mins if not slightly longer, I was conversing with a friend of mine when we heard two loud bangs. I turned to see a crowd of people running towards me, and I immediately turned and began running as well. They had thrown stun grenades at us. Later that day, they would return with big police trucks known as “hippos” and blast protesters with chemical water that caused itching and burning.
The police’s treatment of us was not unusual. We at Rhodes remained relatively lucky for the rest of the week as our Vice Chancellor, Dr Sizwe Mabizela, told the police in no uncertain terms that they were not welcome on campus. As long as us protesters remained on university grounds we were safe from the police. But from other universities, stories of rubber bullets, stun grenades, and teargas, all used against peaceful protesters, began streaming in. We heard stories of our fellow protesters being arrested and charged with treason simply for protesting peacefully outside of parliament.
The situation finally hit me when I saw a post on our university’s SRC Facebook page. A male student had uploaded a screenshot of a conversation he’s had with his mother in which she had advised him on what to do if he was tear gassed. Her message included the sentence I never thought I would have to teach my children this. And that’s when it occurred to me, that our parents had gone through years of tear gassing, rubber bullets, stun grenades, and arrests so that we would never have to. Desmond Tutu’s Rainbow Nation dream had envisioned a future where all South Africans, regardless of race, would have their rights recognized and opportunities open to them. Yet here, in 2015, we must fight for the majority working class black population to have the same access to education as the middle and upper middle class. In 2015, we as peaceful protesters, are still subjected to a government that refused to take us seriously and that ultimately did the to us what was done to them when they fought against the Apartheid government.
It’s depressing that as a born-free South African I can now swap police brutality stories with my parents. It’s depressing that as born-frees we have had to put our bodies on the line to fight for what was promised to us years ago. And it is especially depressing that the very same government who claims to be our liberators turned their guns on us.
While achieving the 0% fee increase will remain one of the proudest moments of my life, I cannot help but think about the methods required to get to this point. This week we have told ourselves that we are fighting for future generations of South Africans, but I wonder if our protests will not be enough. If one day, my own children will tell me about how they too ran away from stun grenades while peacefully protesting for something as fundamental as an education.
As the saying goes, A luta continua, vitória é certa – the struggle continues but victory is certain. The struggle has certainly continued and will continue for many more years. But when the once oppressed turn into the oppressors, one needs to start questioning whether victory is indeed certain.