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Why #FeesMustFailed

Co-Pierre Georg is Associate Professor at the University of Cape Town’s School of Economics.

What will future generations see when they look back to this October of 2016?

The dawn of a new South Africa where we no longer accept that the colour of your skin or where you are born still determine what opportunities you have in life? Or the end of the “rainbow nation” and the consensus that was reached in those shining days in April 1994?

The #FeesMustFall movement started out to achieve the former, but may well end up catalysing the latter. When #FeesMustFall started, many academics were supportive of the students voicing their grievances, mainly because we see in our interactions with students from poor backgrounds that access to university can still feel like a privilege, and not as a right which is theirs to claim. Many will know students who cannot afford to eat three meals a day, who are unable to pay their tuition, or who have to work multiple jobs despite having a full scholarship – because they need to support their family. The situation is clearly unacceptable and students are correct to demand urgent solutions to their immediate problems.

Across the country, protests flared up following Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande’s reckless decision to defer the decision about a fee increase for 2017 back to university councils. The consequences of this decision were devastating, culminating in the death of Celumusa Ntuli, who died as a result of inhaling carbon dioxide from a fire extinguisher protesting students released at Wits University. The condolences by #FeesMustFall, hailing Ntuli as a comrade and one of their own, despite the fact that he was not a protester but only doing his job when the actions of reckless and selfish students cost him his life, must sound empty to his family’s ears.

#FeesMustFall, keep your crocodile tears until such a day that you find a way to reverse time and return Ntuli to his family.

The self-righteousness and audacity of the #FeesMustFall leadership is only beaten by the criminal energy some in the self-proclaimed movement have developed since Ntuli’s death. What is going on in the mind of someone who locks two security guards at CPUT inside a burning building? None of the grievances that students rightfully bring forward to their universities justifies attempting to take another human being’s life.

It is time to denounce #FeesMustFall for what it is: a terrorist organisation, plain and simple. They are not revolutionaries and their actions bear a closer resemblance to the crimes committed by the National Socialist Party in their rise to power in Germany in the 1920s and ‘30s than those of Umkhonto we Sizwe during their fight against the apartheid regime.

But how did we get to this point? How could a movement that inspired the hopes of so many young disenfranchised South Africans lose itself so horribly?

There are four reasons why #FeesMustFall lost their moral compass, and will ultimately lose the battle for free decolonial education.

First, #FeesMustFall lost the moral high ground that provides the ideological fertiliser that grooms any revolution. While the death of Celumusa Ntuli and the attempted murder of two CPUT guards was the apex of the corrosion that eroded the proverbial “high morale” of #FeesMustFall, there were countless other incidents fuelling this corrosion.

Protesters who, for example, lay fire in a residence at UKZN deliberately and recklessly risk the lives of their fellow students.

Protesters who attempt to burn down libraries and computer labs across the country destroy the infrastructure that the most vulnerable students need who do not own computers or don’t have internet at home.

Protesters who throw petrol bombs at university bakkies or threaten the university creche, as has happened at UCT, have no right to be members of the university community and should not receive amnesty.

There are other incidents, too.

When protesters attack and threaten to take hostage UCT vice chancellor Max Price, they violate an elementary rule of negotiations: don’t attack someone showing a white flag.

When protesters throw stones at fellow students at Wits, they antagonise, threaten, and attack those that they claim to lead.

Second, the #FeesMustFall movement never sought a democratic mandate from the students – most likely because they knew they would fail to get one. When Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib commissioned a poll on whether or not classes should resume, a whopping 77% majority of those who replied to the poll said classes should resume.

For #FeesMustFall, on the other hand, not a single vote was cast, nor a single general assembly was convened where students could choose their representatives. The leaders of #FeesMustFall in some instances are also in the Students Representative Council and hence claim to represent the students. But only 7,000 of the 33,000 students at Wits, for example, actually voted for their SRC.

The problem is exacerbated by the informal and often fluid meetings held to debate issues regarding the movement. The point of a general assembly is that everyone is invited and gets a chance to cast their vote. This elementary principle is undermined if invitations to meetings are disseminated via Twitter, or worse, via closed WhatsApp groups. The very design of these meetings is exclusionary. And if someone with a dissenting opinion goes to one of the meetings, the tone is hardly welcoming, which leads to the next point.

Third, leaders of the #FeesMustFall movement engage in racist, anti-semitic and xenophobic rhetoric. #FeesMustFall is a diverse movement and it would be unfair to paint all activists with the same brush, but some of the instances of racism are just breathtaking. Take Mcebo Dlamini, for example, who is a leader of the #FeesMustFall movement at Wits. He has openly declared his admiration for Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, and when confronted about it said: “Hitler took white people [and] starved them to death, the same way they did to black people. That’s why they hate him. I love Adolf Hitler for that.” A Wits newspaper in 2014 also reported on a case where Dlamini stated for years that he was the grandson of Walter Sisulu and that he holds a “secret” [sic] degree in nuclear physics.

At UCT, Ntokozo Qwabe, one of the former leaders of the #RhodesMustFall movement and most famously known for making a waitress cry because of a racist remark he made to her, assaulted a student when he and other protesters interrupted a lecture. The student had recorded the interruption before Qwabe attacked him with a “protest stick” which he claimed to carry for “cultural reasons”. When confronted about his actions, Qwabe, in similar fashion to Dlamini, lashed out via Facebook, writing, “I wish I’d actually not been a good law abiding citizen & whipped the white apartheid settler colonial entitlement out of the bastard.”

These are only the most outrageous examples of a sheer endless litany of hate speech, many of which is caught on video and shared via social media. In a time when racism and xenophobia are on the rise again, from the United States to Hungary and the Philippines, it is not optional for all South Africans to come together and speak out against any form of racism, it is a moral imperative and historic responsibility.

Finally, #FeesMustFall failed because it is a loose combination of special interests, and not a cohesive movement. The live stream of the discussions between UCT Vice Chancellor Max Price and the #FeesMustFall representatives are a case in point. During these discussions, students would continuously change their demands and the different groups within the movement would send changing representatives. In the end, #FeesMustFall was captured by special interests, in particular from workers. Despite their rhetoric, students and workers are not natural allies since their interests diverge widely. The insourcing of workers is very costly for universities. Since it has always been clear that government will not increase its subsidies, it was always clear that these costs will have to be covered by student fees.

#FeesMustFall never provided an answer to how access to tertiary education should be broadened – the much bigger issue in South Africa is that of 100 children, only 14 qualify for university and most of them are from affluent households – or how the TVET system should be reformed.

Worst of all, however, #FeesMustFall has no discernible strategy for how they would achieve their key demand, free quality tertiary education. There was no work done in the background beforehand on how this should be financed or how it should be implemented. Universities don’t make their budgets out of thin air, they depend entirely on government subsidies, which have been shrinking substantially in real terms over the past decade. Why students did not redirect their anger at government is beyond me. They had a unique opportunity to unite the students behind a common goal and lead them through peaceful protests, together with their parents and university faculty, to ensure that our universities can be motors of upliftment for the poorest in our society. But #FeesMustFall squandered this opportunity because they were entirely unprepared and overwhelmed.

The intellectual shallowness of the #FeesMustFall agenda is only surpassed by the total moral emptiness of their actions.

When future generations look back at this October of 2016 they will probably see a squandered opportunity. We had a moment when the eyes of the nation were on our universities and on their students boldly demanding that no South African child must be robbed of an opportunity for a better life. But this moment has come and gone without tangible results.

This is why #FeesMustFailed. DM


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