- Oppression Must Fall: South Africa’s Revolution in Theory
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JOHANNESBURG—That Friday night in October 2015 in Johannesburg, South Africa’s economic powerhouse, was unseasonably cool. Nonetheless, Randall Carolissen, chairperson of the executive council of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), appeared hot under the collar as he raised the microphone to his mouth for the third time. Flanked by a handful of other council members, he sat at a shabby folding table, surrounded by [End Page 30] thousands of mostly black students who’d filled the ground floor and balconies that swept up the atrium of the university’s administrative building. But, as in his previous attempts to address the crowd, he was shouted down.
The problem this time was that Carolissen told the students they should select leaders who’d then be whisked away to the executive suite upstairs to negotiate on their behalf.
“We are all leaders,” the students said in unison. “Negotiate with us all here, in public. No secret meetings!”
The cause of the standoff was that the council had days earlier approved an increase in fees to attend the “top university in Africa,” according to the 2015 Center for World University Rankings, by an average of 10.5 percent. This was 6 percentage points higher than the general inflation forecast and would have been the eighth successive above-inflation increase in as many years.
Other universities, too, had been instituting above-inflation hikes for years, reducing the number of poor students that could be funded from the limited funds available in the state’s multi-million dollar financial aid program. At the same time, the government had not ensured the additional subsidy it provides universities had kept up with the growth in student numbers, reducing the subsidy-per-head and forcing universities to compensate by increasing fees. The declining rand has not helped either, raising the prices of items such as books, journals, electronic resources, and research equipment, according to Wits management.
With rising costs and because Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress promised black people during the struggle for liberation that “the doors of learning and culture shall be opened,” student protests against the fees that exclude them from accessing this constitutionally guaranteed right had become an annual event.
The 2015 protests, however, would prove to be different.
In response to the tuition hikes in 2015, students revolted en masse, starting at Wits and spreading nationwide. They rallied together under the Twitter hashtag #FeesMustFall, drawing inspiration from #RhodesMustFall, a student movement at the University of Cape Town that had successfully campaigned earlier in the year to have a statue of the villainous-even-for-his-time British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes removed from campus.
Within a week, the movement had grown to have its own vocabulary and modes of protest, reaching a crescendo on the lawns of the Union Buildings, the seat of the executive branch in Pretoria. There, before a towering statue of Nelson Mandela, tens of thousands gathered to demand from President Jacob Zuma that there be no fee increase in 2016 at any of the country’s 26 public universities. They sang. They chanted. They danced. And when the wait for a reply to their demands went on for too long, some revolted. In response, police fired stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. It all seemed so surreptitious and fast-catching that various government officials expressed concern that the uprising was, at least in part, the work of a “third force”—a term that harkens back to when the apartheid regime funded clandestine forces to cause unrest in townships to delegitimize the liberation movement and derail negotiations.
The reality of it, however, is that student organizers and university workers, including some faculty, had been working toward this moment all year. Despite being at institutions separated by geography, racial composition, socio-economics, and quality, they’d been gradually building the networks to coordinate a movement that [End Page 31] spoke not as one, not even in the same pitch, but with a singularity of purpose.
They didn’t exactly build it from the ground up...