‘There must be a compromise in every negotiation’
The priority for many young people who get into university is to get their qualifications and make strategic connections to carry into their careers. But Thandeka Tshabalala (23), a fourth-year Bachelor of Commerce in accounting student at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), is no ordinary young person.
She comes from a highly political family. Her mother and close family friends, explains Tshabalala, have always been loyal supporters of the ANC. Her mother’s membership opened the door for Tshabalala and her siblings to understand the inner workings of politics from a young age.
“To us it has been interesting to be exposed to the ANC Youth League from such a young age, attending political meetings and understanding societal issues,” she said.
The second of four children, Tshabalala was born in Katlehong, Ekurhuleni. She went to a Model C school in Pretoria, an experience that always reminded her that she was not only black, but also a woman.
“Having gone to a Model C school you get to realise that the class question plays a major role to you as a black child and as a female,” she says. “It was always about trying to uplift women or trying to uplift a black child.”
Race and gender were built into how opportunities were allocated in her high school.
“What I have realised is that when I was in high school, most of the opportunities I received were either because of my skin colour or because of my gender,” she said.
But Tshabalala was determined to change this outlook when she got to university. Her plan was to contribute to the alleviation of the plight of her fellow students through her involvement in student politics.
When the time for university came, NMMU was the only choice for Tshabalala. It offered something that other universities in Gauteng could not give her, despite their close proximity to home.
“One of the reasons I came to the Eastern Cape is because Gauteng is a fairly developed province and I wanted to see the other side of life,” she said. “I wanted to meet people from different backgrounds, people from rural areas and people who are deeply rooted in culture and learn things I couldn’t learn as a teenager growing up in the township and the suburbs.”
She decided to join the SA Student Congress (Sasco) to get involved in student politics. She is now the Eastern Cape provincial deputy secretary of Sasco and a former student representative council member.
Tshabalala was part of the first national #FeesMustFall protest in 2015. She explains that free education has always been a Sasco project. “The issue of fees that must fall has always been a historical call by us,” said Tshabalala. “If you look back in history, we [Sasco] have always spoken about free education, since 1991, but other organisations were reluctant to believe that it was possible.”
She explains that the campaign was important to ensure that going to university was not a privilege and that any South African, irrespective of their financial status, can go to university.
Tshabalala was arrested at the height of the #FeesMustFall protest for involvement in an illegal protest, a case which was later struck off the court roll. When she got to the police station following her arrest, Tshabalala used her one phone call to inform her mother.
“That night my mother did not sleep, she was so depressed,” she said. “She said she was reliving apartheid again...” But the experience was just as scary for Tshabalala. “I saw the reality of my life when I was sitting in the cell, alone,” said Tshabalala. “It was one of the scariest moments of my life, it was depressing, actually.”
Tshabalala also pointed out that it was not justifiable to burn university property in the name of free education.
Tshabalala acknowledges that if she had had it her way, she would have done things differently.
“I don’t necessarily have regrets, but I would have wished for us to have a more pragmatic approach than we did in 2015,” she said. “In every negotiation, there must be a compromise.
“We had a successful mediation process and I wish that we were able to convince more students to take what was given to us at that mediation to mitigate things that came later,” she said.
When the mediation process failed, the university adopted e-learning for students to make up for all the lost time and to complete the academic year. This system of learning meant that students had to complete the rest of their curriculums on their own, a situation that could have been avoided.
“If we had a pragmatic approach, we would have been a voice of reason.”
PRAGMATIC Thandeka Tshabalala