“I was never prouder to be a young African.” The South African Student Protests Were a Lesson of a Lifetime

It all started at the University of Witswatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg.  By the end of the week, protests had spread across universities in South Africa.  From the big universities with large student populations, to smaller, more modest-sized universities, everyone was involved in the student protests.  Proposed fee hikes energised both learners and lecturers into action.  Lectures were cancelled.  Institutions were shut down.  People took to the streets. And unfortunately, the police got involved. When police clashed with protesters at the University of Cape Town, the protests could no longer be ignored.

The protests themselves were initially met with confusion, approval, and as in any drastic action, disapproval.  Many people, mostly students, simply couldn’t understand why their classmates were disrupting the academic timetable to protest against a fee increase.  Surely they could just take out loans?  What about students that didn’t want to protest?  Why do they want to give our universities a bad name?  Fees go up all the time, why is it such a big deal?

It is easy to think that protesters are simply overreacting.  However, these student protests are not coming out of nowhere.  From the beginning of the academic year, trouble was brewing around tuition hikes.  At Wits University, 300 students were financially excluded, and at Rhodes University, 130 students could not come back to continue their degree programs.  Fast forward to October, and proposed fee increases of up to 15% would mean that even more students would have been shut out of university in 2016.  For many years, students had struggled quietly, not wanting to rock the boat and simply accepting the status quo.  But something snapped in the collective student psyche this time round.  After years of being silenced, of being mistreated by management, and constantly getting empty promises from government, they took matters into their own hands.

The proposed tuition hike, as well as the protests, can’t be looked at in isolation.  South Africa’s history is a heavy component of this past week’s events. The country has a rich history of protest culture.  The singing, the dancing, the burning of tires, the slogans: these are all parts of South Africa’s historical landscape, and they were all on display across the country.  Student protests are nothing new, and in the instances that student unrest has flared up, change and discussion has come with them.  Many of the students involved in the protests echoed the passion and energy of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, and as they sang and raised their fists in the air, they summoned the spirit and bravery of the students who came before them.

south africa protests
Credit: Greg Roxburgh

The student protests were peaceful.  No weapons, no violent behavior.  From Wits to University of Pretoria, everything was calm and coordinated.  Until the police arrived.  As beautiful and unifying as these protests were, they were marred by unnecessary police force.  Rubber bullets at University of Cape Town.  Water cannons at the University of the Western Cape.  Stun grenades at Rhodes University.  Teargas at protests by the Union Buildings.

Students already had an uneasy relationship with the South African Police Service.  When the two clashed, it signaled an escalation of violence and tension.  Although student demands were met and President Zuma announced that fees for next year would not increase, that tension remains.  There is no love lost between students and the police, as well as the government. After days of silence, Education Minister Blade Nzimande chose to ridicule the movement.  These protests were a missed opportunity by both the SAPS and the government to rise to the challenge and engage with students.  After all, as many protesters pointed out, many of them were part of the 1976 protests. They should know better.

The police violence and government reaction are an unfortunate aspect of the protests.  However, they do not take away from the passion and beauty of these protests.  And these protests were truly beautiful.  It’s hard to put it into the words, the atmosphere, the emotions, the energy of it all.  These protests were so personal, and so unifying.  People cried when President Zuma announced the zero percent increase in fees.  Their tears, their cries of joy, it was so powerfully raw.  It was not just students marching.  Academic staff protested with them.  Workers and service staff came into the fold.  Religious leaders stepped forward and showed their solidarity.  Food, water, sunscreen: people donated what they had to keep the protests going. Because as much as students had risen to stand against the exclusionary hike, there was a deep realization that the increase affected not just learners, but parents and guardians as well.  Although there were still voices of disapproval, they were drowned out in the sea of solidarity.

The most integral component of these protests have been social media.  When protests at Rhodes University began, the hashtag almost immediately began the number one trending topic on South African twitter.  The louder the voices, the louder the tweets.  From relaying information, to showing support, to live coverage from student media, Twitter was the hub of the protests.  Not only did it afford students within individual institutions a national platform, but people from all over the country could keep tabs on what was going on.  UCT protesters could find out more about what was happening in Johannesburg.  Local celebrities could tweet their support.  The day when universities nationwide shut down (#NationalShutdown) was heavily planned and advertised on Twitter.  Even media agencies and people outside could follow the events.  South African Twitter has always been a colorful and visible space, and this time its youthful character kept the movement alive and burning.  This revolution was not televised.  The revolution was tweeted.

The protesters succeeded.  President Zuma announced a zero percent increase for 2016 fees.  As the celebrations and jubilation continues, these protests have been an empowering experience for the students involved.  Ridiculed and criminalised, they stood their ground and refused to be silenced on an issue that would affect the rest of their lives.  The power was truly in their hands, and with their songs and their dances, they made history.

I have never been prouder to be a young African.