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Tuesday, 3 November 2015

#FeesMustFall: Time to deliver

By Blessing Vava
Earlier this year, University of Wits proposed a plan to increase its tuition fees by 10%. For my friend Modisane (not real name), a third year Law student who hails from Mpumalanga, the fee increase would have been a major blow.
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Mcebo Dlamini leading the protest at Wits. pic by Blessing Vava
He already struggled to pay for this years’ fees, after failing to secure the NSFAS loan from government. Many students were in the same shoes, failing to raise the existing fees even before the proposed increase.
The previous weeks consequently witnessed sporadic protests by University students across South Africa, demanding that the proposed fee increase for 2016 be scrapped. The protest started the University of Witwatersrand on 14 October, under the hashtag #WitsFeesMustFall, before spreading to other universities. The national campaign adopted the hashtag #feesmustfall.  The movement grew until President Zuma responded to the students demands that the fees must fall, there was 0% increase.But the students’ demands were not just about the zero percent increase, rather they wanted free education.
Government must act
Modisane became part of the protest  at Wits from the day it began. He attended all the meetings and marches; singing, chanting revolutionary songs with the other students. His zeal and determination struck me. He had no choice but to be part of this noble cause in forcing the university to scrap the proposed fee increase, otherwise he was not going to come back to do his final year. ”If at all the time for free education was now inevitable, the government must act” he said to me.
Having had a not so pleasing upbringing in the shacks of Mpumalanga, Modisane’s hopes to continue studying were renewed by the #feesmustfall campaign. As the students of South Africa were claiming their space fighting for their constitutional right, across the Limpopo in Zimbabwe students were watching with envy. YES, the environment in Zimbabwe is repressive and the students union was demobilised, but there is one or two lessons that we can learn.
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The #feesmustfall campaign united students from diverse political persuasions in speaking with one voice against the fee increase. And as a result, even those students who were not interested in politics became part of the campaign. It remains my wish that the students movement in Zimbabwe rise above political affiliation and fight for academic freedoms. Higher education remains expensive and a preserve for the elite in Zimbabwe, its simply if you are poor you cannot access education. Yet in 1980, the new government preached education for all by the year 2000.
Generational mission
The #feesmustfall campaign was at least a stepping stone that galvanized young South Africans to safeguard their future. I was impressed by how the students mobilized using social media, and the night vigils, marches showed me that yes, indeed this generation is determined to discover its mission.
Modisane’s father perished underground, in a disused gold mine as he was looking for the precious mineral to fend for his family. He told me about how his mother; a helper at a local hospital in Mpumalanga, now the bread winner, struggled to raise his university fees. Since he was an intelligent student, Modisane’s mother sacrificed for her son, and hopes one day he will be a great lawyer. As the eldest son in a family of five, he is expected to also assist in the upkeep of his siblings.
Born Free
Modisane was born at the advent of South Africa’s independence, at the end of apartheid. The racist apartheid laws had favoured the white minority, and good quality health and education delivery had been a preserve for a minority. The election of a black government meant the redressing of these imbalances. The masses had hope. In fact, the ANC promised to fulfil the dreams of the freedom charter which said ”the doors of learning shall be opened for all.”
The students of South Africa are simply fighting against the residual effects of that system of segregation. Twenty one years after the dawn of independence, society is still yearning for better; the thousands of students who are marched for the #feesmustfall campaign are simply asking the authorities why they are still paying high tuition fees. The struggle was fought so that there would be equal opportunities for everyone. And for the students, it was clear that free education comes as part of that package to correct the injustices of apartheid, which for decades excluded the black child from accessing free education.
Economic exclusion
The high fees charged by universities across South Africa have excluded many from accessing higher education. Students have found an opportunity to press the government for free education, but there are a lot of underlying factors. The debate around transformation of educational institutions remains topical. The government has shifted blame on the autonomy enjoyed by universities, whom they accuse of ‘wantonly’ increasing fees. On the other hand, the authorities argue that it is the government that is not giving enough funds to subsidize fees such that students do not bear the burden of paying tuition fees.
Aluta continua
For now, some are celebrating the victory of a zero percent. But for Modisane and thousands of other students, its aluta continua until the struggle for free quality education is achieved in South Africa. For them the fees did not fall; it was just not increased. The government announced that they need at around 25-30 billion to every year to achieve free education, it is yet to be seen how they will fundraise to achieve that goal.
Meanwhile frustrations keep growing not just amongst students but to most of the young people who are also clamouring for employment, as those graduating are waiting to be employed. It is not just about the fees, but signs of a deep rooted crisis waiting to explode if not handled carefully. This is quite a mouthful for the ANC government, and with the way events are unfolding it seems the honeymoon is now over. For the South African government, and other African governments in general, its now time for real delivery.
***Article first appeared on Ilizwi http://ilizwi263.com/2015/feesmustfall-time-to-deliver

Blessing Vava writes from Soweto, Johannersburg. He can be contacted on blessingvava@gmail.com