Currently, South Africa’s Higher Education System is gripped by violent protests from students demanding, among others, free higher education for all. These protests are a continuation of the same protests in October 2015, as it is in October when fee increases are negotiated for the following year.
As with last year, the main demands of the protesters were, and still are :
- Free higher education for all students
- The decolonisation of higher education
- The abolition of outsourcing of workers in state institutions of higher learning
Unlike last year, however, we have seen the protests take a violent turn as they dragged on, with widespread violence being reported across the country’s universities, with its the main focus being the University of Witwatersrand in Gauteng, UCT and UWC in the Western Cape, and UKZN in Kwazulu-Natal. Furthermore, threats of violence against non-protesting students have increased dramatically. Social media posts (especially through messages and voice notes on WhatsApp) that threaten grievous harm to person and property to anyone, academic or student, are widely circulated. This puts anyone’s lives who tries to continue the academic program in grave danger, and the prospect of normality on the nation’s campuses virtually non-existent.
Notwithstanding the police’s (and university management’s) response to the protests through the use of crowd control (Stun grenades and rubber bullets etc.), these protests have taken a turn which has become eerily comparable to past strikes of municipal workers against their employer of the past few years. The violence and destruction used in both these forms of protests are strikingly similar, which begs the question :
What are the #FeesMustFall protests really about?
The protests have become less about the foundational aspects of higher education funding, and more about an abhorrent student uprising, with a view to destabilising a critical state institution and bringing the nation’s economy to a grinding halt.
Because make no mistake, if these protests cause the loss of the academic year, that’s exactly what will happen. The economy will be robbed of an intake of skilled graduates into various sectors, and this decrease in skills will negatively affect output and productivity across the board. And while, we can debate the quality of degrees issued by some of our universities, in this case, it is abundantly clear that some education is better than no education.
The fact that the protesting students wish to draw similarities between their actions and that of the student uprisings in the days of the struggle against apartheid would be the main justification for the destruction of campus infrastructure across the country. This, however, is a fatal comparison, as the resources required to repair the damage (currently conservatively estimated at R600 million), will only serve to hinder the government’s ability to provide for free higher education, even if it could in the first place.
Moreover, the students must be getting help from outside sources. Where would they get the funds required to bus them in from townships, the money required to buy human faeces to spread on campus grounds and legal support for those who have fallen foul of the law? The most plausible answer must be from organisations who have clearly communicated their objective to overthrow the government through violent means on whatever platform is available.
We can only hope that the leaders of this movement regain control of the direction of these protests, see the lasting negative consequences of their actions, and seek to continue their action in a manner that would benefit their cause, and add to the goal of reaching economic freedom for all South Africans, in the best way possible.