‘Fallists’ false sense of unity works against us’
Student activist Lukhanyo Vangqa reflects on his time in the no-fee student campaign and warns of possible pitfalls, writes Shandu Ramugadi
When Lukhanyo Vangqa (27) arrived at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) from East London in 2010, his plan was to study for a BCom degree and fulfil the lifelong ambition he had cherished to enter the business world.
Little did he know that his journey would be long and arduous. In 2013, his troubles started when he was excluded from the UWC students’ residence and ended up “squatting” at the residence at Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT).
Fortunately, as one door was closing, another was opening. That year, Vangqa was elected secretary-general of the Pan Africanist Student Movement of Azania’s UWC branch.
By 2013, Vangqa had already found his two callings: activism and helping fellow students. This was necessitated by the fee struggles at UWC and Cape Peninsula university.
When the #FeesMustFall campaign started in 2015, Vangqa had already joined a group of students involved in protesting against fee increases at historically black institutions.
“As activists on the ground, we had been holding our own ‘fees must fall’ protests in historically disadvantaged and historically black institutions,” he said.
“It was only when historically white institutions got involved that the movement attracted national attention.” His stay at UWC was about to come to an abrupt end. “UWC ran into problems in terms of my involvement with #FeesMustFall in 2015. The following year, I was unable to register because of financial issues.
“So, I just moved across the road to CPUT, which I knew very well,” said Vangqa.
Cape Peninsula had become his new home, a place where he could complete his qualification.
“It was a university that, at the time, I thought was well managed and had great potential. I thought it matched the stature of UWC.”
But, said Vangqa, he soon realised that Prins Nevhutalu, the vice-chancellor of CPUT, was “a political deployee who was in way above his head in terms of [not having the] intellectual depth to lead an institution of this magnitude”.
Vangqa explained that at one point “he wrote an email saying that he was here for the ANC, and if anyone had a problem with that, they needed to take it up with the ANC”.
According to Vangqa, the relationship and trust between students and the university broke down during Nevhutalu’s term.
“He summarily suspended students for two years without ever bringing any charges to bear against them.
“We had this vice-chancellor, who was not the best person for the job. He had this mandate to manage this institution as a stronghold for the ANC in the Western Cape, wherein it could contest power,” he said.
“That had a corrosive effect on the functioning and proper governance of the university.”
In October, Nevhutalu was placed on indefinite special leave. The interim vice-chancellor, John Volmink, is trying to mend relations and regain students’ trust with the help of external mediators.
These mediators chair a Rapid Response Task Team, which brings together university management, students, unions and workers to find solutions to problems within the university.
The team was formed as a result of the 2016 fees protest. Vangqa believes the #FeesMustFall movement at CPUT was the most successful of all the campus campaigns countrywide in terms of getting the university to meet students’ demands. “We have abolished financial exclusions and insourced all workers. The university has committed to giving sanitary pads to students and will provide 10 gigabytes of data a month for students who live off campus. “The university is also extending the number of beds it has and this year, we are building two new residences. And, students are not required to pay a registration fee to study at CPUT,” said Vangqa. Another gain that CPUT activists achieved was getting the university to agree to giving students their qualifications even when they had outstanding fees. But Vangqa believes that the #FeesMustFall movement still has a long way to go. The solution, he said, would be to change the movement’s approach. “Mobilising for a campaign will not help us in the long run. It will only serve to slow down the realisation of free education. #FeesMustFall should contest local – if not provincial or national – elections and contest that political power to lobby in those platforms.” But if contesting elections is to become a reality, #FeesMustFall will have to question the unity that the movement has created among students, who represent a diverse range of political parties and interests. “Students have created a false sense of unity and are willing to defend this – to the detriment of the aims of #FeesMustFall,” said Vangqa.