Think!Fest: Dissecting Fees Must Fall – Student Revolt, Decolonisation and Governance in South Africa


#FeesMustFall was front and center of a Think!Fest discussion chaired by four panelists. Titled Exploring Fees Must Fall: Student Revolt, Decolonisation and Governance in South Africa, the discussion – which was also served as a book launch from the Wits School of Governance – was well-attended by students, academics and people with a general interest in the conversation.

First up was Professor Barney Pityana, who, in spite of his official retirement from academia, is still involved and invested in the state of South Africa’s universities. He acknowledged that although university students drove the momentum and spread of the #FeesMustFall movement, it was not one relegated to students alone.

“Everyone is involved: parents, working professionals, elders – it affects the whole nation,” he says, emphasising the historical importance of the student activism. Make no mistake: #FeesMustFall is a historical event, one that requires South Africa as a whole to reflect on.

Professor David Everatt was next, giving more context to the book and speaking about the intentions behind its publication.

“What was interesting about this book is that a lot of the authors came from [Wits University],” he says. “It wasn’t just academics, there were students as well.”

Written during the #FeesMustFall protests in 2015, the book (which is called #FeesMustFall) focuses on the experiences and insights of its authors on Wits University campus. As a member of academic staff at Wits University, Professor Everatt had a front row view of the protests unfolding on campus, and he was surprised by its results.

“What shocks me the most is the students went to the Union buildings and they won,” he says before unpacking the issues within the movement in the wake of the 0% increase in fees. The first and biggest issue was that of class, with many of the movement’s prominent voices such as Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh came from privileged, middle-class backgrounds.

Unresolved issues and differences in ideology made for a weakened student movement, one vulnerable to infiltration from political elements. “Division is replacing unity. I thought that was a terrible outcome.”

Professor Everatt is deeply critical of government’s response to the needs of South African youth. “Whenever someone comes in and says that the youth are the leaders of tomorrow, it means nothing. Because what they’re saying is, ‘Wait until tomorrow. We’re the ones in power now’.”

Next to address the audience was Sanele kaNtshingana, a Masters student at Rhodes University who was an active member of #FeesMustFall in 2015 and 2016. A Grahamstown resident, kaNtshingana demonstrated the need for student activism through recounting his experiences in entering the university space.

“The symbolism in this place doesn’t speak to me, from the names of the residences to the statues,” he says. “There was nothing speaking to me as a black child from Grahamstown.”

He went on to explain how that even in lecture theatres, black children from poor backgrounds felt marginalised, “assimilating in order to survive.” Together with a few other students, kaNtshingana decided to form the Black Students Movement at the beginning of 2015 with the intention of making the plight of poor black students visible on Rhodes University campus, as well as showing solidarity with the #RhodesMustFall movement at the University of Cape Town. Although he acknowledged the importance of universities all across South Africa getting involved in the fight for free education, kaNtshingana also stressed the power struggles within #FeesMustFall, as well as the inequality between historically black universities (like Walter Sisulu University) and historically white universities (like Wits University).

Last in the panel was Professor Ashwin Desai. A Rhodes University alumnus, Professor Desai was strong in his condemnation of South Africa’s current education curriculum.

“Who we are is determined by what we read,” he said, stating that decolonising the curriculum is a policy that would benefit South Africa as a whole. By opening up new channels of knowledge and of intelligence, he explains, the country’s youth can finally get the education they deserve.

It was a discussion full of insight, tough questions and engagement, so much so that it ran over its allotted time. Walking out of Eden Grove Red, there was a sense that #FeesMustFall is a turning point for South Africa’s universities, and that is not done yet.

By Mako Muzenda