Why I support #FeesMustFall


Cape Town - I've spent the last week puzzling my way through a bunch of mixed feelings about the student protests across the country.

As a parent - and even though my son is a long way from making his way to university, if that is his choice - I live in fear of the cost of tertiary education. I know full well that no matter how much I save it is never going to be enough. And so I felt a sort of sympathy for young people who know they need education to get out of poverty, and yet who cannot afford it, no matter what they do.

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Protesting university students flee as police fire stun grenades outside Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, Wednesday Oct. 21, 2015. The protests are part of a wave of nationwide protests that have shut down many South Africa universities, which say they are struggling with higher operational costs as well as inadequate state subsidies. (AP Photo)Minister Nhlanhla Nene delivers his 2015 MTBPS Speech. 21/10/2015, Elmond Jiyane, GCIS

As someone who went to university, I have been worrying about how these young people are going to get through the upcoming exams. I wonder what the lecturers think. I wonder about the students who don't agree with the protests, even if their voices are not being heard. And I don't like the violence that is associated with the protests.

And I wonder how the country will pay for all this.

But, underneath all those intellectual niceties, as the product of a particular generation and class, I had some pretty judgemental thoughts about it all.

My father came from a working class background (his father was a machine minder in a printing works). My dad became an accountant by working during the day and going to Wits at night. It took him a long time but he got where he wanted to be by hard work and perseverance. That hard work paid off and all three of his own children were given tertiary education, which he paid for.

And if he could not have afforded it, he would have told us to do what he did: work our way through it. He was not ever one for going into debt. In our family, it would never have occurred to us that someone else was responsible for paying for our education. That we "deserved" something. Everything was done by hard work and careful husbandry of our resources.

And that set of middle-class assumptions about what people are supposed to do in the world fuelled some cross thoughts about the demands of the students. Thoughts which I heard echoed around me: they are just lazy, they are trying to get out of writing exams, they should just suck it up and do some work.

And this mess of contradictory thoughts and feelings spurred me to do some talking and listening. A friend pointed out that my father's experience was nevertheless founded in a family where someone had a job, and that that is not a privilege that many people in this country have. She also gently pointed out that I have no idea what it like to be poor and desperate.

I heard veteran journalist Max du Preez said in an interview on Cape Talk that the government has been consistently underfunding universities at the same time that students numbers have been rising.

A caller to Cape Talk told of being in the middle of the students outside Parliament on Wednesday and spoke of how very young and nervous they were, and how they were made to sit down to fend off an impending clash with police. Which reminded me of Gandhi's civil disobedience campaign.

Cape Talk afternoon presenter John Maytham pointed out that although some acts of hooliganism were occurring, that did not mean the whole movement should be dismissed.

Journalist Rebecca Davis, again on Cape Talk, spoke of how the students had turned away the DA's Mmusi Maimane, the EFF's Julius Malema and the ANC's Blade Nzimande. What we are seeing, she said, is the face of disenfranchised South Africa, that the students are fighting for their dreams and the dreams of their parents, for the promises which were made to them, and which have not been kept (my paraphrase).

But most of all in my head I have the extraordinary image of Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene serenely reading his speech while police fire stun grenades at young people, of those young people being hauled into police vans and taken to jail. Of Parliament again throwing out the inconveniently noisy EFF so that the ruling party can continue to pretend that all is well.

And the song I keep hearing in my head is Bright Blue's anti-apartheid anthem Weeping, the first verse of which reads:

I knew a man who lived in fear

It was huge, it was angry, it was drawing near

Behind his house, a secret place

Was the shadow of the demon he could never face

He built a wall of steel and flame

And men with guns, to keep it tame

Then standing back, he made it plain

That the nightmare would never ever rise again

But the fear and the fire and the guns remain


Now, in the "new" South Africa, we are apparently far from that place of "fear and fire and guns" (but think service delivery protests and Marikana). But the central image of the wall dividing our society is still true today - with the wall made of patriarchy and patronage and money and corruption and inequality.

I urge you to watch the 1980s video of the song below - and ask yourself how our brave young people differ from the young men in the Bright Blue band and all the other activists of the time. To me it seems they are all looking at the world they live in and seeing something that is deeply, deeply wrong.

And so that is why I too now think that #FeesMustFall.

This is the original uncensored music video for Weeping. It was filmed by Nic Hofmeyr on the Cape Flats in the late nineteen eighties, during the State of Emergency.

 ** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.

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