Student Protests Rattle University of Cape Town: A Symptom of Slow Transformation of South Africa

By Michael Wakin

I was surrounded by barbed wire fences and baton-wielding security guards in riot gear as I prepared to take my final exam at the University of Cape Town (UCT) last November.

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By Mike Wakin

I was surrounded by barbed wire fences and baton-wielding security guards in riot gear as I prepared to take my final exam at the University of Cape Town (UCT) last November. I entered a massive white tent set up on the rugby field and sat down at a rickety wooden desk. I inserted my university-provided ear plugs, which did little to drown out the howling wind, barking patrol dogs, and blaring sirens. Outside, ambulances were on standby in case any students succumbed to anxiety attacks. Amid this chaos, I concluded my semester abroad.

UCT officials erected this makeshift testing space to prevent disruptions from the student-led protest movement, #FeesMustFall. The campaign’s goal is to achieve free and universal education for all South Africans. The movement began in mid-October 2015 as a rebuke to tuition fee increases at South African universities. Protests continued into last semester on the UCT campus, where students sprayed fire extinguishers, smashed windows, filled classrooms with feces and disrupted transportation and tests. My classes were cancelled for the final two weeks of the semester and armed private security populated the campus.

The contrast between the calmness of Kenyon’s campus and the tensity of UCT’s was striking. Students who participated in #FeesMustFall risked expulsion and even prison sentences for their deeply held beliefs. My understanding of the students’ fervor deepened as I observed the movement through a broad and historical lens.

South Africa is undergoing a momentous period in its history. Many citizens yearn to leave behind their nation’s dark past, haunted by colonialism and apartheid, and to enter a more equitable and just future. Upon first glance, the #FeesMustFall movement seems solely concerned with the notion of free education for all. Yet, beneath the surface lies a younger generation’s discontent with deeply entrenched inequality and a lack of transformation that has increasingly defined South Africa since the fall of apartheid in 1994.

The #FeesMustFall movement springs from an earlier student-led insurgency called #RhodesMustFall, a campaign to remove a statue venerating John Cecil Rhodes, which was located at the foot of UCT’s famous Jameson Steps. The #RhodesMustFall campaign drew many parallels to today’s call to remove Confederate monuments in the United States. For many South African students, the statue of Rhodes embodied colonial oppression. As Prime Minister of the British Cape Colony from 1890-1896, Cecil Rhodes accrued a fortune through mining endeavors in Southern Africa. “His wealth was founded on the exploitation of labor and incredible handouts he gained from the then British government. So, greed, racism, and exploitation is really represented in the Rhodes icon,” according to Dr. Alan Janson, the former president of Cornerstone College and founder of Leadership Matters, a leadership consultancy firm. The imposing figure was brought to its knees and discarded from campus in April 2015.

The #RhodesMustFall movement slowly mushroomed into a broader movement to, as supporters put it, decolonize education across South Africa. This movement garnered international exposure and created an environment conducive to campus wide protests and student zeal. This example enabled the #FeesMustFall movement to come to fruition.

The effort to decolonize education is also central to the #FeesMustFall movement. While the university is recognized as a defender of liberalism in the academic world, many students feel that a number of realities contradict this image. “There are definitely problems,” said Keenan Hendricks, a former UCT student and member of the #FeesMustFall movement, who addressed an audience of study-abroad students in early November just as protests were heating up on campus. Hendricks said surveys conducted on campus showed that many black students and faculty had a significantly different experience at the university than the rest of the student body. Proponents of decolonization point out the problematic presence of art around campus that depicts black people as naked and poor, a heavily Eurocentric curriculum, and a lack of black representation in UCT’s student body, professorships, and executive positions. According to the 2011 census, black South Africans made up 79.6% of the population. In 2013, this same demographic made up only 28% of the university’s enrollment, according to report by GroundUp, a non-profit news agency.

On Oct. 24, I attended the first large-scale meeting of the semester under the banner of #FeesMustFall. Students streamed into Jameson Memorial Hall, the main auditorium on campus, filling every seat and standing room. The meeting began with a series of powerful call and response chants prompting passionate singing, pumping fists, and stomping feet. The atmosphere was celebratory. The mood of the room, however, quickly shifted when leaders of the Student Representative Council (SRC) announced that UCT proposed to increase tuition fees by 8-10% for the 2018 academic year. Students erupted in disbelief. From the stage, SRC leaders argued that it was unethical for UCT to put this financial burden on the students, saying they were taking the easy way out rather than fundraising or lobbying the government for money. Furthermore, they said the burden of increased tuition falls disproportionately on students of color, who already struggle to pay the existing rate for 2017 (Bachelor of Arts costs R49,440 or $4,019). The university has responded by saying that students should redirect their anger toward the government, which will be the driving force behind a long-term solution.

Tensions on campus began to bubble to the surface during a Free Education Assembly held in the Jameson Plaza on Wednesday, November 1st. The event was scheduled to facilitate a conversation between university management and the student body after a series of attempts by protesting students to shut down the university. It was a particularly hot afternoon. The air was dry as the sun beat down on the hundreds of people attending the meeting. The heat portended flaring tempers. Dr. Lwazi Lushaba, a politics professor and a leading faculty advocate of the #FeesMustFall movement, kicked off the forum with a raucous speech condemning UCT. He called the university a “white, racist institution” and said, “It is not coincidental that twenty-three years after independence in this country, we have not produced a single black South African professor of political science.” In the middle of Dr. Lushaba’s speech the vice chancellor of UCT, Max Price, got up to leave. The crowd of students showered him with boos and he eventually returned to his seat after Dr. Lushaba expressed the desire to continue the meeting and relinquished the microphone. The remainder of the gathering was filled with contention and vitriol as student after student rose to speak on the matter of free and universal education. The management and the student body remained in conflict at the end of the assembly. The dynamic energy of transformation from the student meeting just seven days earlier seemed to have dissipated. It was replaced by frustration.

The day after the assembly protesters poured buckets of excrement into classrooms, disrupted tests, barricaded streets, and slashed tires on shuttle buses. A video went viral of police officials dragging an unconscious, nude female protester into the back of a police van. Two stun grenades were thrown at protesting students, who were trying to break into the South African College of Music. By the end of the tumultuous week, seven students were arrested for unlawful action.

The student body had mixed reactions to the protests. Jarita Kassen, the editor-in-chief of Varsity News—UCT’s student-run newspaper—came out in support of the student activity in an editorial. She wrote, “UCT needs to be disrupted so that it can transform and become a place which is representative of its student body, in its entirety. It is a sad reality when certain bodies continue to be marginalized in the place where they have justly earned their place.” In a Varsity News special section called #UCTShutDownConfessions, one anonymous student took a more critical position, writing, “#FeesMustFall movement has genuine causes and concerns, however, these are undermined by acts of vandalism and the disruption of academic activities. Everyone at UCT is there to get their degrees, failing to do so, because of a section of students within the movement who have no desire to do anything useful with the movement’s concerns, may result in a huge backlash against the movement as a whole.”

Despite the movement’s civil disobedience, UCT was determined to make sure the academic year finished smoothly. According to a report released by the university, UCT offered R30,000 (almost $2500) for information regarding anyone who committed an unlawful act and paid approximately R5 million ($400,000) to construct the testing venue on the rugby field so final exams could not be disrupted by protesting students. (R5 million would have covered the cost of a year’s worth of education for 101 students under the 2017 fee structure.) Vice Chancellor Price responded to criticism of his forceful reaction in a Cape Argus article, saying “We have taken this unusual step as a measure of our firm commitment to the huge majority of students who want to write their exams and see the academic year through to its end. A small number of protesters remain determined to see the university shut down, and have disrupted tests and exams over recent weeks in their attempts to do so. We will do our level best to prevent such incidents from recurring.”

I found a certain paradox within the #FeesMustFall movement. In an attempt to achieve free and universal education, the movement was directly obstructing the educational progression of so many South Africans, some of whom have sacrificed so much to get to where they are. Yet, as I walked out of the prison-like testing facility, having just finished my exam, I could not help but think of Dr. Lushaba’s prediction about South Africa’s transformation:“It’s not too far off where we as black people [will] have regained our sense of integrity and self-regard. A time will come when we are going to run these universities on our own.”


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