A moment of hope was born some seven years ago as students across South Africa joined together in their call for a free decolonised higher education. While this call was previously made by students outside of the historically white universities, in 2015 it reached a heightened peak and was impossible to ignore. Almost a decade later, the students of the Fees Must Fall generation have ventured far and wide across various sectors of society and the world over. Their legacy lives on today. And it’s one that we must learn from and refine. That is in order to disrupt a system that continues to force people to live in an abnormal society, riddled with chronic unemployment and inequality, climate inaction and the skyrocketing cost of living.
This piece forms part of a series of reflections on the 2015 #FeesMustFall movement.
It is important that we reflect on this key political moment, and how it has impacted us as young people. This article will reflect on the 2015 FMF protests from the perspectives of two activists who were at the time, in first year education, and second year social sciences respectively. Both of whom studied at the University of the Witwatersand.
Like any noteworthy movement, Fees Must Fall started long before the cameras were directed at it, and there are many untold stories. Although, in the public eye and through mainstream media, Fees Must Fall seemed like a reactionary moment, where students had a momentary lapse in judgement and perhaps a moment of blind rage; with no real plans, this was absolutely not the case. In reality, a world class university does not get successfully shut down by students without work going into planning and organising. The reality is that the protests were a result of long standing solidarity that was built with workers on campus, months of discussions and debates about strategy and tactics, and even more years of struggle against a capitalist system that disempowers people in the most violent ways.
Before there was Fees Must Fall, there was #EndOutsourcing and #RhodesMustFall. Fees Must Fall was not without its shortfalls, yet was a brilliant example of a highly organised program of mobilisation post democracy. FMF was one of the first real moments in our modern history that saw mass organising on that scale, for a prolonged period of time, and this was largely due to the way that students were able to use social media as a mobilising tool and extend their solidarity beyond party political affiliation.
While traditional door to door happened in residences across the campus, paired with handing out pamphlets in class, tactics that mirrored those of the youth of ‘76, we also made use of technology in new and creative ways. While gatherings happened on lawns and in tutorial rooms, with libraries providing a space of robust discussion to plan the protests, there were also countless whatsapp groups that were created to plan for the next day, and deleted before the sun came up. Groups were set up for resource mobilisation to get lawyers, food and water, stationery and more. There were Twitter accounts that were dedicated to live reporting plans for shutdown, route changes and any other details of the protests- this was largely what separated the Fees Must Fall movement from those that had gone before it. Young students could readily find space to join and contribute.
FMF provided a necessary shift in our country’s politics. It brought forward a renewed sense of purpose and activism. Energising a generation, most of whom were born into democracy, towards greater systemic and social change. The movement allowed for younger people to critique the status quo that continued to reproduce itself without much challenge. For students entering the university space, Fees Must Fall sparked fires in our hearts. Prompting us to understand society outside of the vacuum we were taught to live within. It disrupted our own assumptions, of a South Africa that was as colourful as the rainbow but without the pot of gold at the end- for the masses who continued to struggle to make ends meet. It allowed us to engage in a politics that recognised the need for a new broad based progressive movement to emerge, demanding accountability and justice.
The activism born out of the movement prompted us to rethink how we organise and why we should continue to organise against unjust systems. Its significance continues to live on through many of us who aim to build a South Africa that values its people equally. It brought about a new radical activism that united students beyond party lines towards a particular objective of a free decolonised education. It was this lesson that set us on a path of activism that allowed us to keep engaged in politics outside of the partisan approach. Creating the space for us to exercise our power and create new space for young people who feel abandoned by the system or the political actors that maintain it.
FMF questioned the role of universities, and critiqued the fact that they are largely reproducing inequality and mirroring the challenges faced in society; instead of providing a space for solutions to be developed. FMF also went beyond a fight for free education. It was part of a larger movement against a neoliberal capitalist system that continues to exclude, dispossess and disempower people from living a life of dignity. So while the Fees Must Fall moment we speak of has passed, there is still a need for young people to apply sustained and prolonged pressure on all those who wield power in society, from government, to political parties and the private sector.
One of the biggest wins of the Fees Must Fall movement is that it produced an entire generation who found their political awakening in the movement. This means that the consciousness that was built, the lessons learnt and the momentum from the movement has laid a foundation for progressive and radical youth activism in the country. The FMF movement reginited a passion in young people, a passion for change, justice and for transformation.
It instilled a sense of duty, solidifying a common hopefulness that we could collectively share. A renewed belief that we will not succumb to desperation, narrowness and doom but rather work to build better and dream bigger. If anything, these seven years have given us a renewed sense of purpose to liberate our country from the corrupt and greedy who do not care about the needs of the people.
Perhaps now we can start organising on a progressive agenda that unifies communities who are increasingly growing distrustful and disillusioned from the promise of freedom without material benefit.
Perhaps now, seven years on, we as young people can establish ourselves as equal players in shaping our present and future. We owe a debt of gratitude to all those who led and organised during FMF, who taught us that our fight is not over, and that if we are to create lasting change, we need not wait for it or expect it to come on a platter, but that we join hands to fight for it. Not just for ourselves but for the good of society as a whole.
There is no better time for us to carry that forward than now, together!
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies of The Daily Vox.
Courtney Morgan is a feminist, activist and campaigner. Irfaan Mangera is an activist and organiser. Both were students at the University of Witwatersrand during the 2015 Fees Must Fall protests.