Last Wednesday, I arrived at the University of the Witwatersrand, where I work, and couldn’t get inside. Some major entrances to the campus in the center of Johannesburg were locked. Others had been barricaded by students. The university had expected a docile, two-hour protest; instead, a week before exams, the campus was shut down by a crowd of 2,000. It’s been closed ever since.
Students at Wits, as it’s known locally, are protesting because the poor are being priced out of higher education. For many of them, getting into a university is a triumph; but staying there is a miracle.
Neither universities nor the government are doing nearly enough to help poor (which generally means black) students survive and graduate. The original impetus for the protests was a proposed 10.5-percent fee increase that would have locked some students out for life. A 10,000-rand (about $750) up-front fee would have prevented many existing students from registering and caused them to lose access to whatever funding or scholarships they had. In just one week, student demands evolved from canceling fee increases at Wits to a government commitment to publicly funded higher education (the government studied such a reform in 2012 but never released its findings to the public).
On Friday President Jacob Zuma announced that there would be no fee increases in 2016. This is a significant victory but it’s only the start of a larger struggle. The government has not committed to cover the shortfalls that universities will face or explained how it plans to fund higher education in the longer term. On Saturday, Wits students voted to continue the shutdown until the government addresses their demand for free education.
These issues are real for students like Lebo, a 19-year-old black woman in her second year at Wits. She wakes up at around 5 a.m. each morning to take a packed minibus taxi from her township to the center of the city. From there she’ll take another minibus to campus, or walk if money is tight. She’ll bring leftovers, and if there aren’t any she won’t eat all day, because food on campus is expensive. She’ll also stand in line for the computer lab for at least half an hour. When Internet is only available on your phone and your only computer access is on campus, you make your essay-writing time count. By afternoon she’ll be hungry and tired, facing the long commute to a one-bedroom home shared with her grandmother and two sisters.
Lebo is not unusual. At Wits there are 10,000 students on financial aid and many more who are struggling but aren’t quite poor enough to merit state assistance. Close to 500,000 university students nationally, just under half of those enrolled, receive official state loans, which leaves many with fee shortfalls and little for living expenses.
Across the country, university students and their families are still feeling the legacies of apartheid’s poverty trap, which provided guaranteed jobs for whites and set up a substandard educational system for blacks designed to create a low-skilled, low-paid work force. Black students were prohibited from attending elite universities, and only a few well-connected black families could afford private schooling. Twenty years has not been enough to alter that, especially coupled with the abject failure of the African National Congress to provide decent primary and secondary education.
Wits students have linked up with groups at other universities — last Wednesday’s protests shut down campuses across South Africa — and, using social media and the force of their own bodies, they have sparked a national conversation about the value of higher education and the right of the poorest to access it. A group of between 300 and 1,000 students have occupied a central building on the Wits campus, while thousands more turn up daily to take part in the marches across the city. They’ve made civil disobedience feel possible again. The atmosphere on Wits campus is like something out of a gauzy Bertolucci film about Paris in 1968. It should have been news, but for a while it wasn’t.
What was news, instead, was violence — which is strange because there has been virtually none. Mainstream press reporting, phone-in radio shows, social media and casual conversation were filled with talk about violence and whether the Wits students had “done it” yet. People spoke about being intimidated, about volatile crowds, about feeling threatened and afraid. No one specified that these crowds were largely black; but then they didn’t need to.
It’s more difficult to associate violence with these students after you’ve seen them chased by police dogs, shot at with rubber bullets, attacked with tear gas and stun guns, and arrested for daring to protest outside Parliament. Nonetheless, an undercurrent remains: that somehow this treatment is, if not exactly deserved, then not surprising, given the students’ supposed violence in taking over spaces, interrupting others’ educational trajectories and generally “misbehaving.”
Last Monday, a white male driver attempted to run over students staging a sit-in on a busy road, after which a small group gave chase, and the driver was injured and his car damaged. Aside from this, academic staff have observed no acts of violence on the part of students, despite being pepper-sprayed by private security officials, rammed by the cars and motorbikes of wealthier (mostly white) students and injured by white police spouting racist epithets.
Why, then, were many South Africans so quick to attribute violence to these students? The answer is depressingly simple. Even today, in a country that’s majority black, a large group of young black people moving as a crowd means one thing only to the panicked public imagination: a threat that needs to be contained. This became clear last week when black students from the University of Cape Town, fearing for their safety as the largely black police contingent advanced on them, called on white classmates to form a human shield. They did, and the police retreated. Because even in South Africa, even now, unruly white bodies aren’t threatening but unruly black bodies are.
South Africa suffers from a shrinking economy, rising unemployment and crime rates bordering on the epidemic. For many families paying a $750 registration fee is impossible. Extending access to higher education is not some socialist dream; it’s a vital part of stabilizing the country. And yet, many South Africans do not see what I’ve seen this past week. They do not see the impressive discipline, careful political thought and deep commitment to a better future. They do not hear the great harmonies as anti-apartheid struggle songs are reborn. They do not feel joy, solidarity or hope. What they feel is fear, what they hear is disorder — and what they see is only the threat of violence.
Nicky Falkof is the head of the Media Studies Department at the University of the Witwatersrand.