Roland Williams: #FeesMustFall narrative misses fundamental point

The #FeesMustFall movement dominates our current media discourse. Largely, the narrative – either in news reporting or in op eds – is premised upon the government’s ability to fully fund tertiary education and how this could be achieved, the violence associated with the protests and, belatedly, the completion of the academic year. All discussion and reports are woven around this threefold thread. Have we perhaps missed the point and, consequently, the causal fundamentals? July 1789, Paris. March 1917, St Petersburg. December 2010, Tunis. Events which were marked by those who felt despairingly dispossessed and thus resorted to “nothing-to-lose” bravado actions in their fight against those who selfishly and minoritarily held onto economic power. History is punctuated by panaceaic events that resulted in radical change in the structure, system and politik of respective societies, from Paris to St Petersburg, from Boston (1773) to Tunis. Failure to correctly diagnose such events as catalysts of a popular uprising of the masses of have-nots against the minority of haves is denial at our peril. April 1964, South Africa. Rivonia Trial accused No 1 (Nelson Mandela) looks squarely at the judge and stonily submits: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society . . . It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die!” August 2012, Marikana. Thousands of miners gather at Nkaneng Koppie demanding a living wage. Today, South Africa. Thousands of students protest at campuses throughout the country demanding free tertiary education. With a Gini coefficient of 0.69, South Africa – the same country that gave the world OR Tambo, Winnie Mandela, Joe Slovo, Rahima Moosa, four Nobel Peace Laureates – one who is lauded as a bastion of constitutionality and an exemplar of freedom struggles – has the ignominious title of “most unequal country”. It is embarrassing. It is unsustainable. It is precipitous. And Marikana and #FeesMustFall are undeniable consequences of this perverse inequality.

Yes, it’s true that a violent element has taken presence in the enactment of the protests, and commentators have been quick to focus their cameras, soundbites and pages thereon. It makes for riveting TV. It’s compellingly newsworthy. But, as Professor Richard Calland points out, it characterises the movement “through a rigid binary lens, with protesters being billed as ‘barbarians’ while those who don’t protest are seen as the ‘civilised silent majority’.” And it misses the underlying pretext of the movement – that of socio-economic structural change. The #FeesMustFall movement started in 2015. Despite the students’ frustration, vehemently built up over years, the government and university management were given ample time to arrive at a sustainably adequate solution. Patience. It’s more than a year later. Same situation, same frustration. Worsening socio-economic structural divide. No more patience. Little wonder that even the ever-patient Thuli Madonsela has proclaimed her support for the movement. John Monbiot writes: “When political debate no longer speaks to us, people become responsive instead to slogans, symbols and sensation.” Jay Naidoo echoes: “Violence becomes the language of engagement.” Without drawing conclusions on who is right or wrong, does it surprise us that most students who are willing to sacrifice the academic year for greater structural change are economically disadvantaged, and most who wish to return are comparatively economically advantaged? Why do we insist on an imposition of normalcy – “the university remains resolute” that classes must continue – when clearly the situation, environment and mood are anything but normal? Why do we anchor our discourse on the short-term accomplishment of a completed academic year, when the cause is putatively pivoted on long-term socio-economic structural change? Education empowers our students with knowledge that is meant to provocatively translate into proactive endeavours for a better world – do we expect our students to study the suppositions of Immanuel Kant, the dialectics of Karl Marx and the economic policies of John Maynard Keynes just for the sake of knowing, without actually applying such knowledge to their everyday lives, to the system within which they participate, or in actively seeking and agitating for a changed society that they believe to proudly hold true to their values of justice and equality – values that we inculcate in them at our centres of learning? On behalf of those who hold social, economic and political power, Jay Naidoo offers an apology: “Yours is a legitimate struggle for free education and your broader rights. I honour you for courageously placing on our agenda the real issues we should be debating . . . You feel that my generation has betrayed you . . . And frankly, on many fronts I agree with you. We made mistakes. And we have to correct them today.” Who knows what the next few weeks will bear. I am certainly not a purveyor of doom, but one thing is certain – if we do not decisively address and radically change the structural and systemic inequalities that persistently pervade our society and cancerously devour our amicability in purposefully engaging on our divide, we are bound to see a hundred more Parises, St Petersburgs and Marikanas. Roland Williams is an alumnus of NMMU and a board member of the Media Development and Diversity Agency. He writes in his personal capacity.