October 22, 2015

South Africa’s Biggest Uprising Since the Fall of Apartheid.

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I don’t live in South Africa anymore.

I am far away from the “Country of my Skull,” as writer Antjie Krog so perfectly dubbed the nation of my birth and roots, where brutality and beauty have long lived side by side.

But that doesn’t mean I no longer feel her pain.

South Africa is in my blood and bones.

I watch the news there in the hopes that something might be changing soon. I look for signs that will give me enough hope to again consider raising my children there.

Some will say I’ve copped out. Maybe I have.

A few weeks ago we got news that a friend’s father and step-mom were viciously attacked in their home by intruders. Thoughts of what they went through have been haunting me since, and I didn’t even go through it. This isn’t the first story like it that I’ve heard, and it won’t be the last. These kinds of things just happen in South Africa—every day.

South Africans have largely, as a survival mechanism, become numb to it, weary of it—the violence, the corruption, the gaping divide between privileged and impoverished that is a breeding ground for the latter.

Rhema Socika, an International Relations student at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, summed it up in an interview with the BBC’s Milton Nkosi:

“Wealth is shared among the minorities of this country, and sadly the face of the government has changed but the core issues haven’t been dealt with, be it our police force, health system or education system. So many things are a reflection of our corrupt government.” 

Meanwhile, the President of the nation builds himself a multi-million rand private dwelling and remains in power despite multiple inquests into this and other scandals. The Minister for Education purchases a 1.1 million rand (approximately $80,000) car as higher education funding is systematically cut and students are faced with possible 10-12 percent fee hikes on fees many of the poorest of them can already barely afford.

Another South African writer, Khaya Dlanga, speaks of his past reality and the current reality of many other impoverished students in South Africa, fighting to get an education, in a recent article,

“When the money dried up, I was very aware. My studies began to suffer because of two things: at first, I became homeless because I didn’t have a place to stay. I had to choose between not having food and having a place to stay or having food but no place to stay. The choice I made was to have food but no place to stay.”

In the last few days this has all become too much for the nation’s youth. A student uprising has begun, and it continues.

The BBC reports, “The protests started last week at the prestigious University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg last week, and have since spread to at least six other universities. It is the biggest protest to hit South Africa’s university since apartheid ended in 1994.”

Protests spread and intensified as student bodies called for a nationwide shutdown of universities, rejecting the government’s offer to cap fee rises at 6 percent for 2016.

Yesterday, students marched on Parliament in Cape Town, taking their message of #feesmustfall to the African National Congress (ANC) majority government. Across the country, at other major universities, they marched. Inside Parliament, the Education minister is interrupted by members of the Economic Freedom Front (EFF) adopting the chant of the students which has begun to echo across the nation,

“Fees must fall. Fees must fall. Fees must fall.”

The response to this growing (largely peaceful) protest from government and police?

Inside parliament was the safest place to be. EFF members faced forced ejection from the chambers. Outside, police fired teargas, rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse the students. There are many powerful photographs circulating on the Twittersphere and elsewhere, illustrating yesterday’s clashes.

I only got wind of the situation yesterday when I saw a Facebook update in my newsfeed questioning students’ destructive behaviour in protests. It sounded like the same old story to me—rioting students using ill-disciplined means to vent their general anger about the unfairness of life in post-apartheid South Africa.

But this was a knee-jerk response.

After spending hours scouring the internet and the news, speaking to fellow South Africans on social media, as well as family and friends, it seems these incidents are few and isolated.

This is a co-ordinated and principled movement.

And it is garnering worldwide support from students who have shown their solidarity by tweeting pictures and messages with the trending hashtags #feesmustfall and #nationalshutdown.

twitter screenshot

Twitter screenshot

I studied in South Africa. If I hadn’t gotten by on scholarships and bursaries and been able to live with my middle-class parents within walking distance from the university, I might have had to resort to a hefty student loan—which would have at least been accessible to me because of the situation of these same white, middle-class parents of mine.

Poor (mainly black) students do not have these options. And the fees are steep.

Another fellow South African, academic Megan Griffiths, spoke out on Facebook,

“While my parents did not pay for my fees (despite their many attempts to help!), their socioeconomic position and wonderful kindness allowed me to pursue my studies. They supported me financially by allowing me to stay at home so I could save money for my studies. They would not allow me to pay board, despite my protests, until I reached the age of 25. They bought my first laptop for me when I was 19 so I could do research and submit my assignments online. Most importantly, they encourage me in everything I do.

Most students in South Africa do not have these privileges. What does a bright future doctor do, whose entire family lives in a one-room shack with no electricity? What does a future engineer from a child-headed household do?”

They rise up.

Just like they did in 1976.

This message from a mother to her daughters shows how history in South Africa has come full circle this week, to be met with the same response from the powers that be.

twitter screenshot

Except this time the nation’s youth are uniting. I have heard powerful stories of unity and solidarity amongst students and university staff and across racial divides. A family member who recently completed her degree as a mature student emailed me to tell me of her experience when caught up in a protest in KwaZulu-Natal:

“Earlier this year as well as throughout the year there have been protests for various different reasons: fees, accommodation. On one specific occasion I was caught in the middle of a riot which saw the police firing rubber bullets as well as tear gas and carting students off in the back of their vans. In the middle of all of this, a giant of a black guy stood in front of me then reached out and held me tight until the mob had passed by. He then stood back, looked me in the eyes and said “Are you alright?” It was a touching and humbling experience for me.

The majority of the students come from poor backgrounds and for them the struggle to study and pay fees is a very real one. Mothers working as domestics and fathers either unemployed or security guards. They make unbelievable sacrifices to try and do better in life. These are not average income households, they are poor! They are not asking for free tertiary education. They are asking for affordable education. 

The students demonstrate, some of them in an unacceptable manner, but this is the only way in which their voices can be heard.  Many of the students that I have studied with (majority black) have young families, full time jobs and transport problems. Life is not easy for them. They have however managed to study and complete their degrees and I am proud of them all. Most of them borrowed library books for study because the text books are unbelievably expensive. None of them are “savages” or “unruly”—they are trying to be heard. To deny these students fair priced education robs the entire country of a generation of educated workforce.”

Despite the reports of rioting and some property damage, excessive police and apathetic government reponses, I feel like a tiny seed of hope for my country is growing in me where, rightly or wrongly, the ground has been bare for some time.

If the Soweto uprisings, now commemorated in South Africa by National Youth Day on June 16th, are a precursor to the history that is now in the making—out of the anger of the youth, change will come.

To show your solidarity, consider signing this petition to support the struggle.

Amandla awethu!

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” ~ Nelson Mandela

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Relephant read:

Free Education: The Global Struggle for Our Right.

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Author: Khara-Jade Warren

Editor: Caroline Beaton

Images: all from Twitter feed #feesmustfall (@simphiwedana, @ewnupdates, @iamSivN, @embizwenimakhana)

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