Interview with Fees Must Fall, a student-led movement in South Africa

Photo courtesy of feesmustfall.joburg
Photo courtesy of feesmustfall.joburg

South Africa’s student-led Fees Must Fall movement has begun the New Year with a reinvigorated push for economic and racial equality. At the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, activists occupied the Solomon House during the early January registration period. They are protesting in order to force the university to fulfill their unmet demands from 2015 which includes the elimination of the practice of requiring all fees at the time of registration. The Student Representative Council (SRC) and Fees Must Fall achieved a zero percent fee increase last year, however, FMF continues to fight for further objectives. Activists were forcibly removed from the Solomon House on the morning of January 12th by a third party security team and tensions have continued to rise with ensuing altercations. The university has become a more militarized zone as police and protesters clash on campus. A court order has been issued by the university against some FMF activists and they are expected to make appearances on February 1st. UDL Blog Editor Kai Bauer spoke to Thato Magano from the FMF media team about the movement’s demands, struggles, and future goals:

KB: Could you give an overview of your list of demands for this campaign?

TM: The Fees Must Fall movement came out of what started as a Wits movement that catapulted into a nationwide movement. It began with the demand of a zero percent fee increase. When the presidency had agreed to the zero percent fee increase, the movement continued as a nonpartisan, student-led movement. We had entered into an agreement with workers on university campuses that said while we were fighting for fees not to increase, we were also fighting to end the practice of outsourcing so that all workers on university campuses could be insourced and get the benefits of being registered, employed workers for the campus. After the agreement with the university for a zero percent fee increase, a week later we secured the insourcing agreement, and so we internally realized the power of collectively organizing student bodies and workers. Those most marginally affected by the oppressive systems of capitalism must come together to fight. It cannot happen in individual pockets otherwise we will never get the victories. The workers have been fighting against outsourcing for the past fifteen years. The students have been fighting against fees every year since our democracy has come into effect twenty-one years ago. It is only now that we understand the fact that those oppressed and marginalized by the system can work together to have some protected and meaningful systemic change. This year we are coming back to say that there should not be any students excluded from university because they cannot afford to pay the fees. There shouldn’t be any students who are not allowed to register because they do not have the R 9,000 ($532). We are continuing to allow education to be accessible only to the elite. There are secondary demands around the treatment of workers and students as well as the decolonization of the university and its curriculum, but our main agenda for this manifestation of the movement is to call for an end to fees increments, financial exclusion for those who did not pay last year’s fees, and to allow those to register who cannot afford it.

KB: How is the relationship between the university and the Fees Must Fall activists?

TM: We had believed, after negotiating the insourcing agreement with the university and a number of other demands, that we had a relationship of good faith with the university. We shouldn’t allow the university to frame this narrative as though they weren’t aware that this was going to happen. At the end of last year we were quite clear that if they weren’t scrapping the demand for an upfront fee payment, we would be left with no choice but to disrupt registration and to enter into an activist period. One of our fundamental agreements with the university is that there has never been the need for a third party security company to come into this campus. We have never been violent. We have always maintained peaceful protest because we understand what our objective is.

Photo courtesy of feesmustfall.joburg
Photo courtesy of feesmustfall.joburg

KB: As Fees Must Fall continues to decolonize higher education, how does the movement see the future of Wits?

TM: As a movement we are committed to the notion of the African public university. This university is built on four pillars: the understanding of intersectionality, the understanding of an African epistemological curriculum, the understanding of black academia-led institutions, and the understanding that the university space itself needs to reflect the continent that it does its business in. This notion of intersectionality means that we come to these spaces with different identities; however, our blackness is a unifying factor. So none of us should ever be discounted in our liberation of these spaces. The second one, the African epistemological curriculum, means that it’s not good enough anymore that twenty-one years later we still continuously have a curriculum that centers European and American schools of thought. There is enough post-colonial, pre-colonial, and even colonial scholarship that speaks to a different way of entering schools of thought than what is the norm. This supremacist idea of whiteness and western modernity is something that needs to come to an end and something we need to push as a movement. From the academic perspective it is disheartening that in a country where 88% of the population is black, only 3% of Ph.D. holders are black. Institutions of higher learning need to do more to develop and retain black academic talent and produce these scholars. That has not happened over the past 21 years because we have always believed that transformation would take care of itself, but I think what we realize is that the condition of blackness is so precarious that a black student cannot afford the 10 years that it takes to complete an undergraduate degree to a Ph.D. degree. If we’re talking about decolonization, we’re talking about undoing an entire school of thought. That cannot be done only at the level of access; that has to be done at the level of the physical, the operational, and the intellectual. Decolonization is a cross-cutting process. If we’re talking about an African university, it embodies the ethos of Africa first, not a reproduction of Europe with African faces.

KB: What misconceptions locally, nationally, or internationally would the movement like to clarify?

TM: I think what was interesting was that as early as our first protest, there was already media headlines saying, “Selfish Fees Must Fall students disrupt registration at Wits.” I think that is a narrative that continues to be fed by white liberal media to the South African public. White liberal media has not taken the time to understand what our objective is. It is very easy to go with the narrative of the Student Representative Council [SRC] of this campus. It is a comfortable narrative because we got the zero percent fee increase. However, we as a movement continued to say that all of our conditions have not been met. Also the SRC continues to be reformist. It continues to want to play within the rules of the institution instead of wanting to undo the rules of the institution. There are students sitting at home who know that there is a registration fee that is more than what their parents earn in a year. Already that person is not thinking of coming to register. However, if you change the narrative and you say that you can register and we’ll worry about how you’re able to pay later then that is a position that enables people to start imagining differently. It still amazes me that the issue of historical debt disallows people from graduating. You can study for years and have nothing to prove, so you’re not able to get the job that will enable you to pay back the fees that you owe to the university. One of the things that we want to clear up is our understanding of the intimate condition of blackness and the different levels of struggle and oppression that black people face in this country. We understand what poor and working class people in this country need to access these institutions of higher learning. If people would just come and hear us out about why we want to scrap upfront registration fee payment and historical debt (or at least allow people to graduate so they can work to pay back the fees) then they would understand why this is necessary for decolonization to happen. They clearly are misunderstanding our objectives.

KB: Thank you, Thato, for your time! To learn more about the Wits Fees Must Fall movement please visit feesmustfall.joburg or check out their Twitter handle @WitsFMF for updates.