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What is the Price of Revolutionary Activism for Student Activists?


Chumani Maxwele is a postgraduate student at UCT, political and educational activist and a writer on decolonisation in higher education in South Africa.

#FeesMustFall activists are paying the price for fighting for free and decolonised Education. They face criminal charges at magistrate courts. In many universities, activists are expelled, suspended and interdicted. Now, unprecedented interactions with students and interventions by justice minister Mike Masutha and President Cyril Ramaphosa show a strong political will to find solutions to the challenges facing #FeesMustFall activists.

When Steve Bantu Biko left his home for Cape Town to visit his comrades including Neville Alexander – who had recently been released from prion – he knew that the apartheid police were after him. Biko’s message to them was clear: if you want me to keep quiet you will have to kill me otherwise you better be sure that I will talk back to you about apartheid injustices. Biko had resolved that there is a huge price to pay for questioning the apartheid state. For him, that price was death.

Biko’s courage is the moving force behind student activists of the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall National Student Movements. Some might be at a stage where they have outgrown Biko’s work and have resorted to studying the source of Biko’s ideas, which is (Frantz) Fanon and his generation of revolutionary writers. Others are moving towards unpacking the works that inspired Fanon himself.

The nature of activism involves having to pay a certain price. Contemporary South African student activists and their collective leaders have also been forced to answer the question: what is the price of being a revolutionary activist? Like Biko and Fanon, #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall student activists have resolved that they are willing to pay the price for fighting for free and decolonised education in our life time.

Through the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements, students have discovered and fulfilled their generational mission. Many students are now paying a price for fighting for their democratic right. We are reminded of our dearest Comrade Khaya Celishe, who is already serving a prison sentence for participating in #FeesMustFall and for his alleged torching of a police van. Equally, we are thinking about Comrade, Amla Monageng ,who is serving a year-long house arrest for participating in the #FeesMustFall movement.

Student activists across the country are facing criminal charges at local magistrate courts. In many universities, student activists are expelled, suspended, interdicted and rusticated.

We thank President Zuma and the ANC for their revolutionary action of bowing down to the political pressure that students put on the ruling African National Congress government.

Like Biko and Fanon, Celishe and Monageng were resolved in their political programme and fulfilling it. If need be, #FeesMustFall student activists are prepared to die or go to jail. While writing this piece I asked about the well-being of Comrade Monageng. He replied via Facebook messenger: “Leader of the young people, I am doing great thank you and hope you are well. We all know that we can’t be well in the current dispensation, the status quo is anti-black masses. But we don’t have to be crybabies and complain…” Monageng knew his fate, just as Biko and Fanon knew their fate for questioning white power superstructure.

I received this kind of response from Masixole Mlandu and Athabile Nonxuba, who faced criminal charges in the Wynberg Magistrates Court for two years. The charges were dropped mid-year after legal and political representations at the national prosecuting authorities’ offices, both provincial and national. One would ask the two: how do you feel about these court cases after the president announced Fee Free Education, the victory of #FeesMustFall student movement that you have led? Their collective response almost instantly goes like: “Sobukwe said ‘serve, suffer and sacrifice’…”. This is the response of people who knew the fate from the outset. The revolutionary fate of the most powerful post-apartheid “south” African student movement is jail, expulsion or rustication.

The fate that fell on student activists in June, 16 1976 , is now falling on the #FeesMustFall students in the post-apartheid “south” Africa. This is the fate that is now facing Comrade Mcebo Dlamini and Comrade Bonginkosi Khanyile. These two #FeesMustFall activists did not wake up from their home determined to break the “law”. They are facing charges after being caught by the fate of revolutionary consequences for leading a national revolutionary student movement that challenged the White establishment in the former White universities of “south” Africa as well as challenging and pushing the ruling political elite led by the African National Congress party with revolutionaries Anton Lembede and AP Mda. Others would argue that this is not the ANC of Pixley ka Isaka Seme, Walter Rubusana, John Dube, Thomas Mapike, Sol Plaatje and Saul Msane, but an ANC of President Zuma that arrested its own children and put them in jail (and simultaneously pronounced Fee Free Education) for fighting for that which the ANC of Mandela, OR Tambo, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Thabo Mbeki…proclaimed “…vote for free education…” in 1994.

Now the ANC of President Cyril Ramaphosa, DD Mabuza, Lindiwe Sisulu, Nathi Mthethwa is promising to re-visit its historical past of caring for its children for much-needed political guidance. Ramaphosa and Justice Minister Mike Masutha have shown a strong will to resolve the challenges facing #FeesMustFall activists. This resolve comes after “a long walk to the Union Buildings” and “a week-long” sleep protest in front of the Union Buildings by Dlamini and Khanyile, who are among many student activists facing political “criminal charges”.

The two student activists have since been joined by other activists to give birth to the #PardonusPresidentRamaphosa Campaign. Masutha personally came out to collect a memorandum of #FeesMustFall student activists, who marched to parliament and visited Bonginkosi Khanyile, his Mother and fellow student activists who slept in front of the Union Buildings. These two personal interactions of Masutha and student activists was unprecedented and showed a strong political will by Ramaphosa and Masutha to find a lasting solution.

The interactions led to an initiative between the Ministry of Justice, activists and Eminent Elders in “south” Africa to look at the issue of student activists who are facing charges, in universities or in courtrooms. Students facing charges in relation to #FeesMustFall have been encouraged to come forward with their charges and thus a committee or a commission modelled on the one at UCT in resolving charges that were levelled against student activists at UCT. UCT’s Institutional Reconciliation Truth Commission (IRTC), which was initially proposed by student activists of #FeesMustFall to UCT’s Council. It heard testimonies from the students who were facing charges and later the IRTC resolved to recommend to UCT’s Council that students must be given amnesty.

On Friday, Ramaphosa will deliver Steve Bantu Biko’s Annual Memorial Lecture at Unisa. Ramaphosa (a former student activist himself) is astutely aware of the significance of giving a Biko lecture in the age of the #Fallism Student Movement and their sufferings through the legal system both in courts as well as in universities.

I have no doubt that Ramaphosa is aware of the power and the role that young people need to play in building South Africa. Ramaphosa has the greatest challenge in the post-apartheid state such as “south” Africa – to inspire young people from the urban and rural areas, the rich and the poor, particularly women and other vulnerable populations to wake every morning inspired and having a vision for their lives.

As young people we will lobby Ramaphosa towards the needs of young people in “south” Africa. We are inspired by Ramaphosa’s Thuma Mina campaign as well as his daily early mornings walks. These initiatives are a call for young people to take action and thus contribute towards developing and building our country. The positive energy, the euphoria and optimism that has been created by Ramaphosa’s Presidency is a sign of confidence in his leadership.

As young people, we are fully behind the leadership of President Ramaphosa. He will see us everywhere he goes with a mission to influence him towards prioritisation of young people through education opportunities, mentorship, and an incubation programme designed and led by visionary young “south” Africans. DM

Chumani Maxwele is a Postgraduate student at UCT. Political and Educational activists and a writer on decolonisation in Higher Education in South Africa.


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