A bird’s-eye view of the #FMF movements that have gripped the country initially presents the viewer with an image of unity and solidarity amongst the chanting students. However, a closer look reveals the internal fractures that riddle the movement.
After the Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande announced a possible fee increment of 8%, the University of the Free State’s Bloemfontein campus erupted. Classes were forcefully halted, the gates firmly locked and the echoes of revolutionary songs resounded across the campus. Initially, SRC President Lindokuhle Ntuli was seen at the forefront, issuing directives, rounding up comrades and delivering passionate soliloquies about unity and defiance in the face of struggle. However at the mass meeting held on September 20 things started to go pear shaped. Ntuli believed that the objective of free education could be obtained through appealing to university management to reject a fee increment and in so doing put pressure on government.
Ntuli’s proposal was opposed by others who believed that fighting for a 0% fee increment from management would be a costly and time consuming strategy and that fighting for free education from the government would be the only way to ensure that the objective of #FMF is met. Students at the mass meeting were asked to vote for a strategy and the first round of voting swayed in Ntuli’s favor. After the results from the first round of voting had been captured, a group of individuals supporting the second strategy advanced towards Ntuli with intent to commit harm to his person. The scuffle was squashed and after lengthy discussion a second round of voting took place.
The second round showed favour for the proposal to direct the fight at the government for free education. This was then accepted and the meeting was adjourned. Hours after this, Ntuli on behalf of the SRC as a collective released a statement condemning the protests and subsequently terminating it; “The SRC is calling the protests off as they have shown the propensity to become violent and uncontrollable.” The statement also went on to mention that the scuffle at the mass meeting between Ntuli and the individuals who opposed his proposal was an attempt by the said individuals to hijack the “genuine struggle and cry” for free education as a means to settle political scores. The release of Ntuli’s statement led to a division within the protest as SRC support withdrew and those in favour of the movement formed a leading committee of their own and continued with the protest under the banner of the Free Education Movement (FEM).
Ntuli’s disapproval of the protest provoked hesitation towards the protest amongst student leadership structures such as the Primes Council. The Primes Council is composed of residence heads across campus, they are the key decision makers within their respective residences and FEM identified the Primes as a means to draw residence students to their cause. The Primes however were dubious, mainly because the SRC had withdrawn from the protest and the Primes Council falls under the jurisdiction of the SRC. Undaunted, FEM hosted a meeting with Primes on the evening of September 21 that revealed factions not only between the students and the SRC, but also amongst SRC members themselves. At this meeting, five SRC members came forward and testified to not even being aware of the statement Ntuli released until after it was posted. They claimed that Ntuli had acted of his own volition. “We never held a meeting to discuss our position. The correct channels weren’t even followed”, said SRC secretary-general Tsietso Mafoso.
The Primes then requested a meeting with the SRC and FEM which took place on Thursday September 22. To the surprise of many, the outcome of Thursday’s lengthy meeting saw the SRC rejoining the protest and the Primes agreeing to follow suit. After the meeting, IRAWA Post (UFS Student Publication) interviewed Ntuli and three of the SRC members who had denied involvement in the statement. Ntuli said that around the time the statement had been released, there was a great deal of miscommunication and misconception and that the SRC had now internally resolved these issues. “We are not a perfect structure, however we have ironed our individual differences out and are now operating in unity”, said SRC dialogue and associations’ Sikhululekile Luwaca. Despite this sudden change in the SRC’s position and the renewal of its structural support, underlying tensions between the SRC president and FEM members remained and the SRC has since not played any form of leadership role in the movement.
Chasms have not only emerged amongst leaders but also within the masses themselves. FEM handed the official memorandum of demands over to management on September 26 and management’s response followed 24 hours later. On September 27, management agreed to allow for 0% fee increment for poor and middle class students. This concession was debated by the masses at a student gathering, with people disagreeing over whether education should be free for all regardless of income levels, or whether those who can afford it should still be liable to pay. The point was put to vote and the masses initially agreed with management’s decision. This was strongly rejected by those who felt that by agreeing to management’s concession, the movement was shooting itself in the foot because it had indirectly agreed to Blade Nzimande’s directives. Hours of back and forth ensued and it was clear that many students did not have the same understanding of the movement and the directives thereof. The decision to agree to management’s concession was revoked and students accepted the notion of free education for all.
University management also requested that FEM sign a social compact detailing the nature of their protest action. In return, management assured FEM that the pending charges against certain students (incurred from the infamous Shimla Park incident) would be dropped effective immediately. The social compact requires that the protest be non-violent and that students are safe from police brutality amongst other points. The social compact was hotly debated with many refuting its contents and the agendas of management. Students felt that the document would impede the movement because of its rigidity. “How can we ensure that a protest is not violent? If we are provoked what must we do? We must reject this document because it hinders the movement”, said one of the students. Others cautioned, reminding students that if they do not sign the document those who are still facing charges from the Shimla Park incident may be arrested. This resulted in frustration between those in favour of rejecting the document and those concerned about the students facing charges.
The protest has also resulted in factions within the student body as a whole with many students leaving for the October break frustrated at having not adequately completed the quarter. “I came here to study and I am very worried about whether my bursary will still pay if I do not continue with the academic year”, said a student who prefers to remain anonymous. Others feel that the protests are justified and that the students are fighting for that which they rightly deserve.
Only time will tell whether these divisions will be the undoing of the movement or whether the dissent can be overcome.