Special editorial: the state of Fees Must Fall – 2016 edition


Last year this time, the Fees Must Fall movement was gaining momentum, barrelling towards a triumphant mass march on the Union Buildings, where it would eventually win concessions from government including no fee increases for the following year. This time around, the movement is coming apart at the seams. Campuses are burning, security police are prowling, and student leaders have been arrested. Where did it all go wrong?

Poor student leadership

You might say it started with the burning of a bus in Braamfontein, or when students at UCT assaulted their vice chancellor. You could go back further, to when police used stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse students on campus, or to the first incident of rock throwing at Wits.

The physical violence of this year’s protests have been top of mind for many but these are just surface manifestations of a deeper problem with the Fees Must Fall movement – its incoherence.

In 2015 the demand was simple – a zero percent increase in fees and a commitment to free, quality education.

Consider the number of universities affected by this year’s protest – at least 16 by our count – and the diversity of their demands, which include everything from free education to the removal of police and private security on campus, an end to outsourcing, the pardoning of suspended and expelled cadres, the cancellation of student debt, tampons and sanitary towels, wifi for students in residences and transport for those living off campus.

Last year, student leaders at Wits provided the kind of leadership that inspired, even though the end of the protests brought allegations of these same leaders selling out to government.

Mcebo and Vuyani Wits fees protest

This year, the political splits within the Wits leadership are much deeper than just party political affiliations. Even the objective of the protest is an issue of dissent, as some student leaders have called for the removal of President Jacob Zuma and the ANC from office. Others seek to work within the current system to force the democratically elected government to cede to its demands. And in between there are rabble rousers, who seek disruption for the sake of it.

Look away if you must but we’re going to quote Adam Habib now: “Every social struggle has various conflicting interests,” he said. And he’s right (on this point).

Student leadership this year has been unwilling to compromise, demanding that the university remains shutdown until government commits to a timeline for free education – a near impossible demand by any reckoning.

The university has taken a hardline stance, bringing additional private security onto campus and giving police full operational control, a position that has served only to harden students’ attitudes, provoke fear and hostility, and escalate violence.

Meanwhile, government has reverted to its default position of police brutality and intimidation by state security, with residences raided, student leaders rounded up and some arrested on what appear to be trumped up charges.

Among all this, it is easy to lose sight of the root causes of the conflict.

Access to education is a real, legitimate issue

At the heart of these protests are black youth who continue to struggle to imagine a future unencumbered by the burdens of a history of disadvantage. It is as true of last year’s protests as it is this year.

Take Thembelihle Khumalo, an 18-year-old from the village of Tugela Ferry in KwaZulu-Natal, who was raised by a widowed mother and granny, both of whom are unemployed. Despite the family losing everything they owned in a flash flood in 2013, she managed to pass matric – one of just 36 kids in a class of 97 – and was accepted to study teaching at Wits. She arrived in Johannesburg with no plan for funding her studies, and moved in with an aunt in Thembisa – a township that is a 45-minute commute from the university.

A story of two school leavers – two very different editions

Thembelihle was given three months to pay off her registration fee after receiving a waiver. She’s applied for a NSFAS loan and several bursaries but has yet to hear back on these. “For now NSFAS seems like my only hope,” she says. “Wits has been my dream though and I’ve always loved it – I did a lot of research, so I hope that I’ll be able to have the chance to stay here.”

A Daily Vox reader was touched by her story, and arranged a bursary for Thembelihle’s tuition. It should not take a story in the media for a poor, black person to be able to afford higher education.

The Fees Must Fall protests are about the ongoing struggle of black youth, like Thembelihle, to secure a future unencumbered by the burdens of a history of disadvantage. The legitimacy of these protests cannot be doubted; however, the sheer number of localised demands at each university has diluted the core issue.

Dodgy tactics all round

But it’s not only the lack of a singular message, and a unified movement, that has set the Fees Must Fall movement back this year. The violence that has accompanied these protests has alienated many supporters off campus.

The vandalism and arson that has occurred on campuses must be condemned, and the law allowed to take its course in dealing with the perpetrators.

Some student leaders have denounced the violence while others have encouraged it, some have been vocal in condemning arson but remained silent on the issue of rock throwing. This, too, shows a lack of coordination and poor messaging on their part.

Meanwhile, the increased militarisation of campuses has escalated the violence and affected protestors and bystanders alike. In addition to protesting students, clergymen sheltering fleeing kids, lecturers waiting to teach classes, and support staff going about their day, have been hit by stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets.


Communications from university management on the protests have been tone deaf, with statements focussing on damage to infrastructure, arrests made and how the academic programme will proceed. They have avoided mentioning the broader impact of heightened security on the university community, despite reports of the violence enacted on students and staff, and the psychological effects they’ve suffered as a result. The academic programme may be proceeding but the kids aren’t alright.


Government’s decision to treat the protests as a security matter, and to implicate a third force in recent events, rather than to grapple with the key demands of the movement has further alienated students.

Several students have complained of police intimidation. Last week, student leaders were rounded up and arrested. One student was stopped while driving, surrounded by seven police cars, and allegedly arrested at gunpoint. His lawyer was told that he was suspected of being in possession of petrol bombs, but also that there were questions over his car registration papers. He was held for four hours during which time, he says, police interrogated him over his involvement in Fees Must Fall. He was later released without charge.

And then there’s the racism

Underlying all of this is the seething racism that exists in South African society, and the idea that the status quo, in which poor black people must simply accept their historically designated place in society, must be maintained. You need only read the comments circulating on social media to get a taste of the deep hatred for poor and black people that continues to exist in South African society, a hatred that needs nothing more than the image of a student throwing a rock or a video of a single ill-informed person’s comments on science and colonialism, to delegitimise an entire movement – and brand everyone involved as uneducated thugs.

Fees Must Fall 2015 left most onlookers feeling invigorated. The 2016 vision is nothing less than a demoralising dystopia.

The only way through this quagmire is for all sides to commit to disarmament, to letting go of their greatest weapons. Students must surrender the call for a total shutdown of campuses (a move that will cause untold chaos for higher education students), universities must call off the private security guards and police who patrol those campuses, and government must send police and state security back to whatever they were doing before the student protests began. Only then can the movement building and the long, hard negotiations required for free, decolonised education begin in earnest. Without these, the Fees Must Fall protests of 2016 will continue to devolve into a pointless circus of rock throwing, teargassing, intimidation and arrest.

Featured image by Yeshiel Panchia


  1. Good article. I support wholly and unreservedly (within the limits of the law) the campaign for better access to education for south Africans – at all levels. Decolonialised or not. May it one day be free (ish) and decolonized to the recipients satisfaction

    One question from the perspective of white, reasonably privileged (gratefully) male.

    Any reason why you have neglected to mention the seething anti white racism that has spewed forth fromprotestors? Racist comment range from from inert “fuck white people” through to the slightly disturbing “kill white people”. I understand reporting on the anti white racism would be inconvenient as it would detract from the victimhood narrative that is used to legitimize much of the more awkward (read criminal) action of some of the protestors however I think this is a poor reason to not make at least a cursory mention of it.

  2. “I understand reporting on the anti white racism would be inconvenient as it would detract from the victimhood narrative that is used to legitimize much of the more awkward (read criminal) action of some of the protestors.”

    Yes Damian, very good illustration of the point made in the last few paragraphs. I too was worried that it might be lost without a forceful example.

    • Just say its not nice to say “kill whites”. Its easy. Go on try. Battling with hey Sipho? Sorry.

      On a technical point Sipho, I suspect the courts may agree with my assessment that some of the protestors committed criminal acts.

    • Oh and Sipho I did not brand all of the protestors as “uneducated thugs”. I referred to some of the protestors as behaving criminally. Take your time to read my comment.

      Look,, maybe you’re right and it is a cultural thing. As a white South African I find it difficulty to imagine resorting to criminality to further a cause, any cause, so I battle to find solidarity with those who do. Maybe its a lack or desperation on my behalf or a different value system but no I cant. Anyhow I wish the law abiding fallists of all colours the best unless they keep up with the “kill whites” “fuck whites” thinking. In that case fuck them.

  3. Good article. In the end the problem is very poor leadership amongst the students and a total unwillingness to compromise. In fact it is worse,as soon as one of their demands is met a new one comes up which is more extreme. A lot of the demands are impossible to meet. They have also turned into dictators who have decided what they want is right and everyone else must do what they say. So universities are pushed into a corner. Either shut down and massively disadvantage the majority of students( and as is always the case the poorest students are affected the most) or bring police in to control the situation. Whatever they do they get criticized. I think Habib probably made the best choice out of two terrible choices. If only the small minority of protesting students would get a decent leader and start to find a way forward because what they are currently doing is not working. Already at least one person has died I fear greatly that another person will lose their life very soon.

  4. The author forgot to mention the racism on UCT campus, that “kill whites” stuff.
    The author also gives no attention to Celumusa Ntuli – the first person murdered by the Fallists at Wits.

  5. A good and relatively comprehensive article that covers many aspects of the 2016 movement and mentions a number of harsh truths. However it does have one big blind spot in its studious ignoring of the deligitimising and alienating power, as well as the very presence, of black chauvinism and prejudice within the Fees Must Fall movement.

  6. Well I have never in my life heard of a rapist prescribe to its victim how to react to the atrocious acts made against her and her do exactly that. She is hurt and has every right to be angry and to express that anger. It so happens that she wants him dead, oops! How cruel of her. Just because you stole our land odd years ago doesn’t take away the fact that you are a criminal.
    We are willing to look past that, if only you would humble yourself though. We have been patient with you.
    I dare you to reply in vernacular. To prove yourself to us all that you are genuine.
    Moral of the story, it’s not about you! Deal with it. Alone!

    • Nicely illustrated Aluta continua. South Africa is a nation where bad things are always “that other group of peoples’ fault.” We are not a nation that is good at introspection or recognising the legitimate grievances of others.


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