Hundreds of students are set to march to the Union Buildings on Thursday to call for free tertiary education. File picture: Nokuthula Mbatha

In this extract from a forthcoming book on the education crisis, author Malcolm Ray explains why traditionally white campuses became the leading cause of the Fees Must Fall movement

Spring reaches South Africa in September. From the dusty Karoo to the Highveld of Johannesburg, storm clouds usually break amid claps of thunder. Streaks of lightning blaze across the evening sky and, for a fleeting moment, a hard rain washes over the land. In mid-September 2015, heavy storm clouds sagged low over the city, nudged along by gusts of wind, but there was no rain.

Throughout the spring and summer that year the city’s landscape was hot and dry. A crippling drought had settled over the land, water shortages now adding to a devastating energy crunch that had already battered the economy and driven thousands of workers into a life of unemployment and destitution.

All that year, there were strikes and community protests, some of them violent scenes of police pushing back desperate men, women and youths. As September gave way to October, there were other clouds besides those over Johannesburg. Six months earlier, the Rhodes statue at UCT had become a lightning rod for student resistance and opposition against symbols of the colonial and apartheid legacy when a fourth-year political science student named Chumani Maxwele staged a one-man publicity stunt by desecrating the statue with human faeces.

By April, the university capitulated. The statue was eventually removed in a staged event that bore all the hallmarks of a minor coup. Similar protests spread to traditionally white campuses across the country, rapidly gathering force as students began raising more deep-seated demands for transformation. In early October, a black student lit a bundle of dry, yellowy roots on the promenade of the Great Hall at Wits. The ritual was in deference to his ancestors.

A clutch of black students stood by, watching. Their white peers ignored the spectacle. The ritual was also a minor act of theatrics no doubt, an ingenious provocation designed to get people’s attention, for it epitomised the cultural and socio-economic chasm between black and white students on campus.

What distinguished those early days of October 2015 was that so many black students had no money or hope of ever surviving the financial and academic rigours of university life. The prolonged economic downturn since the 2008 global economic crisis had sunk into a ruinous recession. Thousands of black parents lost their jobs, or were hit hard by debilitating wage freezes in the face of a weakening rand and soaring inflation.

To black students, they were a generation who were born free but still did not count. If they did not count, they surmised, another human sea did. In Wits Vice Chancellor Adam Habib’s drive to cut and prune expenditure, black workers at Wits had been shut out of permanent employment, their employment outsourced and their wages and conditions "flexibilised", an embraceable term among employers who saw outsourcing as a better means of slashing labour costs and disrupting trade union organisation.

Habib had quickly gained notoriety among workers and students, who saw his plans less as a reflection of his personal brashness, a character trait described to me by several students I spoke to, than a mandate from the university’s financial stakeholders to turn an academic institution into a commercial concern run on business principles.

The students wanted social justice. They wanted the university to pay decent wages to non-academic staff. And they wanted free education for the children of workers. “We found our cause,” Mpho Ndaba, a first-year student, said to me. I now understood the context. But I wanted to know how student grievances had developed into a mass movement.

It was a grey Wednesday afternoon in late January, and I had been waiting to meet Shaeera Kalla at the Wits cafeteria. At 3, the clouds burst in a heavy downpour. At just that moment, I received a text message from Kalla.

She was held up in traffic, not because of the rain. All that week Kalla had been flitting between meetings into the late hours of the night. The student protest movement had become the major preoccupation of the country: there were marches and sit-ins at universities across the country protesting fees and racism, and Kalla had by then become a familiar face in households, revered and reviled by parents of students for her pioneering role in the protest movement.

I was a little embarrassed to sit with her and hear her ideas. It was awkward to be confronted with this fierce passion, intellectual rigour and activism all at once, to sympathise with her hopes and yet keep a guarded distance. Kalla and her comrades reminded me of the selfless commitment shown by many brave activists during the anti-apartheid struggle.

There was defiance too. Her first act of defiance was to pursue graduate studies in commerce rather than in the humanities, as her father wanted. She eventually compromised and enrolled for a BCom, majoring in politics. The decision set the course of her public-spiritedness, first as president of the Student Representative Council (SRC), then her second act of defiance.

When she arrived at Wits, Kalla’s mission was tailor-made. She flinched from the university’s vulgar colonial history and snobbish distinctions.

Serving on the SRC was a “scarring experience”, she recalled. “You are confronted by students who have to sleep in libraries, who are not empowered to succeed. So many students go to study but only 18 percent go further because they struggle financially,” she said. “It’s not like free education is something we suddenly woke up to. It’s something we really need for people and the future of our society.”

When the Rhodes Must Fall protest at UCT became a national movement in March 2015, tens of thousands of students turned their attention from symbolic issues of transformation to more tangible measures on campuses. And so when Wits announced a 10.5 percent fee increase on October 2 last year, Kalla and fellow students hit back.

Later that morning, protesters marched across the university, gathering support on the way. All across the campus, heads turned as the strange phalanx strode across the open spaces.

Whether in response to the student’s ancestors or student leadership, a new movement was stirring.

* Malcolm Ray’s Free Fall: Why South African Universities Are in a Race Against Time will be released on November 1 by Bookstorm. Ray usually writes on political economy