This writer reminds us that Wits has seen protests like this before

HAROON WADEE takes us back to the early 1990s. 

It was 1993, the year before the first democratic elections, and Wits University was on fire. Not literally, but it was inflamed with passionate activism and cries for transformation of the Senate and the ruling structures of the university. Lectures were disrupted, lecture halls were trashed. Protesters engaged in peaceful sit-ins at Senate House were pursued and hounded by policemen with police dogs, rubber bullets, teargas and batons. The cops seemed eager to get their last bits of bloody action before 1994, when a new dispensation might bring an end to such draconian policing.

Students and young staff, many of whom were merely enjoying a smoke and coffee at Senate House, were chased through the central block corridors, out into the concrete quads. We ran to find safety in any building that was open.

I recall hiding under a table in a staff room in one of the life sciences building, with a professor standing as cover, telling the police no-one was in the room. I remember meetings in the residence halls and in Braamfontein Centre in the evenings, when South African Students Council (Sasco) members plotted their course of action and the next day’s activities.

The talk was of transformation – fast-tracked to usher in the new era in South African polity and society. There was no talk of Fanon or Biko. No intellectualising. It was simple. Transform the ivory tower. A petition and memorandum of demands was signed and hand-delivered to vice-chancellor Robert Charlton, who accepted it from the safety of one of the upper levels.

Charlton was too afraid to step into the throng of students engaged in a sit-in at Senate House, too afraid to embrace them and the winds of change sweeping through the country through the Bozz, past the Planetarium, across the library lawns between William Cullen and Wartenweiler Libraries, up the Great Hall stairs into Central Block and around Senate House, where it flamed the fires of youthful activist passion fuelled by a dream of a new university, a new country and a new world.

Our dreams were noble and we were united by the same common thread of love and peace and interconnectedness that we see today among the new generation of student activists. The cries are different. The calls are different. But the essence is no different 23 years later.

The apartheid government was on its way out then and was not interested in intervening. Today, we have a government that is firmly in place, but that is also passing the buck. The government that was ushered in on the shoulders of optimistic student activism is the same government that has abandoned those students today.

Is it perhaps that the majority of students from 20-odd years ago are the ones wielding power and influence in the state and the corporate world today? It is interesting to see statements on social media from former activists, who now argue that students shouldn’t get things for free. The dominant discourse is that of individual hard work and merit, forgetting the legacy of structural inequity and injustice that the mothers and fathers of the resistance movement fought against, and the core principles of the Freedom Charter.

But in South Africa, access to higher education isn’t simply about merit. We have a highly segmented schooling system that entrenches inequality and privileges those with access to facilities, equipment, huge fields, extra-curricular activities and favourable teacher:learner ratios.

The government has allowed this system of inequality to be perpetuated and must take responsibility for bringing stakeholders from all sectors together, to find solutions that tackle these structural inequities, and to build a platform that will meet the skill requirements to make South Africa the economic powerhouse that it can be.

Some analysts say free education will exacerbate inequality. Really? What about redirecting state funding from military spending and bailing out failing state enterprises, for instance? What about the national airline that is the drain-pipe of resources that could be used to build a nation? What about the combined resources and efforts of the private and public sectors? Has there been a concerted effort to see how we could make free higher education work, or are we simply giving up on the idea to begin with?

Countries that have free higher education are exporters of skills; not because their skilled workers want to leave for greener pastures but because they have enough skills for their countries and beyond.

To the activists at Wits today, your passion is what will inspire. You have remained disciplined, principled and brave – qualities that the country will need as you step into leadership positions in the not too distant future. Watching the developments on social media takes me back to a time when I was a student with a vision for a better world. That better world is still coming, and the students protesting today will help make it a reality.

Haroon Wadee is a senior health systems, socio-economic and local economic development specialist pursuing doctoral research on the ethnography of survival strategies of street-level drug users.

Featured image by Mohammed Jameel Abdulla

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