Stu­dents must stand firm

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE -

IMAGES of burn­ing build­ings, over­turned cars, stu­dents be­ing hunted and ar­rested, and re­ports of pro­test­ers be­ing fired upon with rub­ber bul­lets, live am­mu­ni­tion and stun grenades, con­tinue to dom­i­nate our head­lines and so­cial me­dia feeds.

Against this back­drop some South Africans are rag­ing against the pos­si­bil­ity of los­ing the aca­demic year, in­tern­ships and pos­si­ble job op­por­tu­ni­ties, as the Fees Must Fall (FMF) protests heads into its fifth week.

FMF is not a new or pre­dom­i­nantly vi­o­lent phe­nom­e­non. For the last two decades, the de­mands of these stu­dents have been ig­nored by gov­ern­ment and so­ci­ety.

It is only now that these strug­gles have en­tered the cam­puses of elite and for­merly white uni­ver­si­ties that they have be­come an is­sue of na­tional im­por­tance. Stu­dents have been ac­cused of pri­ori­tis­ing free higher ed­u­ca­tion over ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion, health­care, wa­ter, san­i­ta­tion, and hous­ing. The truth is that they don’t. We must not sep­a­rate FMF from the strug­gles for the pro­vi­sion of ba­sic ser­vices. It is im­por­tant to note FMF forms part of the global strug­gle against racism and colo­nial­ism, stretch­ing from the Oc­cupy and Black Lives Mat­ter move­ments in the US to the Pales­tinian strug­gle.

Stu­dents, how­ever, can­not be blamed for the uni­ver­sity cri­sis, and are not ul­ti­mately re­spon­si­ble for its res­o­lu­tion. The root cause lies in the of­fice of Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma. The bru­tal ap­proach of the SA Po­lice Ser­vice (SAPS) and some uni­ver­sity man­age­ment’s de­ploy­ment of pri­vate se­cu­rity forces, who are largely ill-equipped to han­dle protests, has fur­ther ex­ac­er­bated the cri­sis.

While the mil­i­tari­sa­tion of cam­puses has ag­gra­vated protests, it must be recog­nised that uni­ver­sity man­age­ment has no power to change the un­der­ly­ing struc­tural con­di­tions re­spon­si­ble for our higher ed­u­ca­tion cri­sis – only the gov­ern­ment does.

The gov­ern­ment’s Fees Com­mis­sion set up in Jan­uary lacks trans­parency, is un­fo­cused and slow, and its com­ple­tion date has now been shifted. Rather than de­mand­ing an­swers from stu­dent lead­ers, we must de­mand that the gov­ern­ment works to­gether with stu­dents, man­age­ment, aca­demics and all other stake­hold­ers in an at­mos­phere of mu­tual re­spect and good faith, with con­crete time-frames, to achieve free ed­u­ca­tion for all.

Fo­cus­ing only on crim­i­nal and po­lit­i­cal op­por­tunists loot­ing stores and burn­ing build­ings be­lit­tles this long-stand­ing move­ment and di­verts pub­lic at­ten­tion from the orig­i­nal ob­jec­tive of the FMF move­ment: open­ing the doors of learning to all.

Strong lead­er­ship and dis­ci­pline is re­quired from stu­dents who must stand firm against the in­fil­tra­tion of crim­i­nal and vi­o­lent el­e­ments, fac­tion­al­ism, frag­men­ta­tion and po­lit­i­cal ma­nip­u­la­tion of their jus­ti­fi­able move­ment – all of which will ul­ti­mate de­stroy their cause, if left unchecked.

In Long Walk to Free­dom, Nel­son Man­dela re­minds us: “It is through ed­u­ca­tion that the daugh­ter of a peas­ant can be­come a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can be­come the head of the mine, that a child of farm­work­ers can be­come the pres­i­dent of a great na­tion.”

The core of FMF is based on this premise and is an at­tempt to end the ex­ploita­tion and marginal­i­sa­tion of the black ma­jor­ity from the main­stream econ­omy. Madiba’s vi­sion of lib­er­a­tion through ed­u­ca­tion can only be achieved with real po­lit­i­cal will from the gov­ern­ment, and strong lead­er­ship from stu­dents and man­age­ment.

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