Students must stand firm
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.