South African student strikers speak at Ryerson
"Do not shoot"
“Think of it like the liberation movement of South Africa,” proclaimed Witwatersrand (Wits) University Student Representative Council President Nompendulo Mkhatshwa to an audience at Ryerson University. Along with SRC General Treasurer Karabo Marutha, Mkhatshwa is in Canada to raise money to support students who cannot pay their school’s registration fee of roughly 10,000 R ($876).
The subject of the Ryerson talk, however, was “Fees Must Fall,” a series of anti-tuition demonstrations that have swept South Africa since October 2015—demonstrations Mkhatshwa and Marutha helped coordinate.
The movement took off when Wits announced a 10.5 per cent tuition increase. A broader wave of “Fees Must Fall” protests rose thereafter, spreading to other South African campuses. Buildings were occupied, and statues of colonial figures were brought down. The Wits movement managed to shut down the whole university. While “Fees Must Fall” remains active in various forms, it has already achieved a major victory—two days after a protest in South Africa’s parliament, President Jacob Zuma announced a nationwide tuition freeze for 2016.
Mkhatshwa and Marutha’s presence in Toronto raises another question. Can “Fees Must Fall” spread beyond South Africa’s borders—perhaps to Anglophone Canada?
Mkhatshwa and Marutha’s talk hinted at similarities between the South African and North American student movements. Mkhatshwa argued that if one is going to fight for a free education, it is important to envision what kind of education one is fighting for. She bemoaned that courses in South Africa often don’t teach texts by African authors, and argued that Canadians should similarly push for the inclusion of more First Nation’ perspectives in their curriculums.
Indeed this year, U of T ‘s Native Student Association launched a campaign to make Aboriginal Studies a mandatory component of U of T undergraduate degrees. Furthermore, Mkatshwa and Marutha repeatedly emphasized women’s empowerment and intersectional analysis as key strengths of their movement (noting that black South African women are most impacted by high fees). This builds yet another bridge to western campuses, where feminist and anti-racist organizations have recently risen to prominence.
The speakers also emphasized the level of work that went into “Fees Must Fall,” providing key lessons for their Ontario audience. They explained that they went dorm to dorm to talk to students about the fee increase. They noted that they did not take student support for granted, but rather worked to educate students on the impact of a fee increase. They added that once their occupation began, high levels of organization were important, as maintaining an occupation requires volunteers to oversee food, social media, the police, and health.
The protests also relied on dynamic imagery and spirit. During the occupation students cleaned up their space, making the point that they saw the school as theirs. When university administrators would come to address them, organizers immediately asked if the fee increase was to be repealed. Until they got a yes, they refused to let administrators speak.
But while Mkhatshwa and Marutha’s talk provided meaningful lessons for Canada’s activists, key elements in the formation of “Fees Must Fall” are not present here.
Mkhatshwa and Marutha are members of the Progressive Youth Alliance, which is aligned with South Africa’s ruling African National Congress Party. Mkhatshwa in fact wears a head tie visibly branded with the ANC logo. The pair discussed this seeming contradiction, noting that their movement had the ANC’s support in theory, but they nonetheless had to fight to get the government to act on their demands.
The ANC is not alone in its supposed sympathy for the student movement. Mkhatshwa attributed the strike’s success to the fact that youth affiliates of South Africa’s second and third largest parties (the centrist Democratic Alliance and leftist Economic Freedom Fighters) were also supportive of the movement’s goals.
By contrast, in Canada, mainstream forces within the major political parties do not advocate for anything resembling free education, let alone organized university occupations. Sandy Hudson, a veteran U of T and Black Lives Matter activist, pointed this out to the speaker, noting that party youth here are often willing to denounce social movements for the sake of protecting their parties’ images.
The South African struggle is also distinct because it falls into a greater narrative of decolonization. Mkhatshwa described “Fees Must Fall” as a continuation of the tradition of the 1976 protests against new school language policies in the Bantustan Education system. Under Apartheid, black South Africans were put through a separate school system that pushed them to be domestic servants for whites. While South Africa’s schools are now desegregated, Mkhatshwa argued that high tuition and status quo-promoting curriculums taught by white professors continue to keep black South Africans in the cycle of poverty.
Toronto and Johannesburg are no doubt two very different settings for protests. Despite these differences, much of the struggle remains the same. The arduous task of mobilizing and inspiring protestors, and the frustration of having to stand up to school administrators who deny that the cost of education is a barrier to students are struggles that students from Toronto to South Africa face together. Canadians are unlikely to win free education in the near future, but they have nothing to lose in following South Africa’s example.comments powered by Disqus