#FeesMustFall: Is it still about the fees?


The 2015 #FeesMustFall movement had the country wrapped in its cloak of idealism with students protesting together despite racial and cultural differences. It was truly the picturesque view of the democratic rainbow nation. Social media platforms were ablaze with visuals showcasing the theme of racial unity in the face of adversity. Black and white students were seen holding hands, passionately singing and dancing together. They triumphantly embraced one another as their united cry for a 0% fee increment was positively answered by government. However, the atmosphere permeating through the 2016 #FeesMustFall protests is vastly different from its predecessor. As the protests have progressed around the country, they have increasingly revealed a conflict of interest between black and white students at various institutions. This conflict of interest has been attributed to the concept of white privilege. This concept has been increasingly referenced to by #FeesMustFall activists as of late.

In a video captured by 3rd Degree reporters, a black female student at the University of Cape Town (UCT) identifies white privilege as that which governs the culture of the institution. “We have eight students who have been criminalized, firstly because they are black and secondly because they are facing up to white power, white supremacy and white arrogance at UCT”, stated the speaker amid the cheers of students present. The speaker further elaborated on the concept of white privilege by saying that being a person of colour in South Africa can be likened to being in a perpetual state of oppression. The video draws to a close as the speaker directly addresses white students by saying “You are going to use you’re privilege to mobilize and stand in solidarity with us. This is not open for discussion. I’m instructing you.”

As the Fees Must Fall protests have continued to disrupt academic activities across the country, we have seen the rise of movements asking for universities to be opened. In late September #ReOpenUCT started up its own Twitter page. The movement is “trying to keep UCT open in spite of disruptions. We are not against more affordable fees!” While #ReOpenUCT is not against the principle behind the Fees Must Fall movement; the creation of such a movement has highlighted racial divisions amongst students. SNG spoke to Caira Blignaut, third year student at UCT, who said that “there was such a clear racial divide. Most of the students and lecturers supporting #OpenUct were white people and most of the people who were supporting the #FeesMustFall movement were people of colour. On the video footage you can clearly see this.”

UCT’s Varsity Newspaper editor-in-chief Aisha Kareem Abdool, cautioned against the notion of examining the protest from a purely racial black versus white perspective. Abdool commented that he “wouldn’t say that it is only between black and white students because there are colored students, Asian students, Indian students and black international students so it really has more to do with people’s backgrounds, where they are coming from and their own personal feelings towards the situation.” Abdool also mentioned that the racial split in support for the #FeesMustFall protest arises from white students’ inability to understand where black students are coming from.

According to Abdool “last year there was a lot of support for the protest regardless of racial groups, however this year I think that the longer the protest has dragged on, the more it tends to become racialized. The more the white ‘supporters’ start to miss out on classes, or feel excluded in the space they tend to withdraw their support.” Abdool further explained that generally white students at UCT feel that the rationale behind the protest is being lost because in comparison to the previous year’s #FMF movement, the main objective of the 2016 #FMF protest is harder to ascertain. He concluded by saying that “there are quite a few different causes that all of the protestors are putting under one banner.”

At the University of Witwaterstrand (Wits), a Whatsapp voice note went viral after the female speaker in the voice note warned that the #FeesMustFall protestors had said that “in order to get Habib’s attention, at least one white student must die, whether male or female.” The speaker in the voice note explained that the motivation behind this statement was to express displeasure at the perceived manner in which Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib was handling the protests. The speaker elaborates by saying that the protestors feel that Habib is arrogant and this arrogance is further aggravating them.

A video recorded by TimesLive at the #KeepWitsOpen protest clearly revealed the dissent brewing between students caused by the concept of white privilege. In the video, a black male student can be seen angrily yelling to those around him that the police were not intimidating the #KeepWitsOpen protestors because they are mainly comprised of white students. The second frame of the clip shows a white female student, who was part of the #KeepWitsOpen protestors, criticizing a black male student from the #FeesMustFall protestors about not attending discussions and negotiations to consolidate a joint way forward.The black male student responds d by saying , “go back to the Netherlands, they need you there.” As the clip progresses, we see a white male student in a wide brim hat attempt to intimidate the #KeepWitsOpen protestors by blocking their paths and ripping their placards. “This university isn’t just for white people, it’s for black people, it’s for South Africa and here you are just trying to be privileged entitled f****”, he shouts.

The clip ends with a rousing speech from student activist Vuyani Pambo addressing the #FeesMustFall protestors after the #KeepWitsOpen protestors had retreated. Pambo spoke of the perceived white arrogance and supremacy that is at the core of the #KeepWitsOpen movement. “White people must not think we are stupid. We can read the innuendo’s, the underplay in their words”, said Pambo. He then touched on the history of Wits and stated that the mines on which the university was built were intended solely for the benefit of white people. Pambo went on to say that “the grandchildren of those that built this university are saying that they are taking back Wits. We have one conclusion from that, and that is that they are taking Wits back to white hands and our protest has been saying that we must extend the space [institution] for people who look like me and you.”

In Port Elizabeth, much like at Wits, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) witnessed students divide under the banners of #OpenNMMU and #FeesMustFall. eNCA aired an insert showing students from opposite sides engaging with one another on the concept of white privilege and academic concerns. A black male student from the #FeesMustFall movement can be seen appealing to the white male student from the #OpenNMMU movement saying “it’s wrong that the white students are fighting for the university to open and the black students are fighting otherwise. Can’t we all just come together?”

Emily van Heerden, editor-in-chief of NMMYou online news publication, confirmed that the protest has become a chasm between white and black students. “When a mass meeting was hosted with all the stakeholders, the white parents were asked to leave because the black parents could not afford to be in attendance”, said van Heerden. Van Heerden added that because the #OpenNMMU campaign had protection and surveillance from the police coupled with the fact that the campaign was mostly comprised of white students, the campaigners were accused of exploiting their white privilege.

University of Pretoria
At the University of Pretoria (UP) Chad Johnston, Perdeby News Editor, recalls a standoff between Afriforum students and protesting students some weeks ago. “Here we can definitely see that there’s a split between black and white students. I think it’s due to the demographics at [UP].” Johnston went on to explain that the main reasons for the altercations and tensions between black and white students is because the majority of white students want to return to classes whereas the #FMF protestors who are predominantly black students, want to continue the fight for free education.

At the University of the Free State (UFS), a Whatsapp group chat was established to allow students to debate and discuss their views regarding the protests. The conversation hastily escalated when the issue of white privilege was mentioned (For the sake of privacy their names will not be made public). One student said that “white privilege is a reality and you might not experience it but if you say it doesn’t exist you are naïve.” This message was met with a flurry of backlash and another student responded by saying that “people don’t know the economic backgrounds that you come from and assume that you are rich just because you are white.” The Whatsapp group did not leave much room for critical discussion and establishment of a way forward due to the fact that the topic of conversation could not be dissuaded from the issue of white privilege.

While the #FeesMustFall protest of 2015 stemmed from frustration regarding the exorbitant fees at South African universities, it is clear that this year’s protests are about a great deal more than just education. 2016’s #FeesMustFall protest action has shown us that #FMF protesting students intend to dismantle the current status quo entirely, a system perceived to be governed by white privilege.