Internal divisions threaten South African student protests

Students gather in protest at the University of the Witwatersrand on April 4, 2016 (Photo: Sne Ngxukumeshe)
Students gather in protest at the University of the Witwatersrand on April 4, 2016 (Photo: Sne Ngxukumeshe)


The most recent wave of student protests in South Africa shut down the Braamfontein campus at the University of the Witwatersrand for a few hours on Monday, April 4. But some witnesses reported that the students, who are calling for structural changes to the university system, including free education, are also dealing with internal divisions.

Since last year, universities in South Africa have been shaken by an unprecedented wave of student activism. It has been called the largest youth movement since the Soweto Uprising in 1976. It has provoked responses and real changes from as high up as President Zuma. 

Though the protests originally began about schools fees, they have morphed into a more general call for the transformation and “decolonization” of educational institutions.

For example, media covering the April 4 protest at the University of the Witwatersrand reported varied grievances from protestors. Many decried high fees and a university policy of suspending students for outstanding fees. Their movement that has united under the #FeesMustFall hashtag. Some went further, demanding free education for all. Others were standing in solidarity with underpaid university staff, like cleaners.

"People said the protest had a political agenda, but I didn't feel it while I was there"

Sne Ngxukumeshe is a first-year student at Wits, studying commerce.

I saw the protest and immediately went to see what was going on. I attended a #FeesMustFall meeting earlier this year. Fees are extremely high and a university education has become a luxury that many people can’t afford. Moreover, the economy is doing badly and we have a corrupt government. So I was proud to see people protesting, especially because protest has historically lead to change in South Africa.

Later, I also heard a lot of people saying that the protest had a political agenda brought on by the members of the Economic Freedom Fighters (a radical South African opposition party) who were there. But honestly, I didn’t feel that when I was there.

I followed the protestors as they walked across campus. The problem occurred when we reached Senate Hall, where the fees office is located. There, some of the leaders clashed. Several female leaders also accused the men of not being inclusive. People also surrounded the fees office, trying to get the staff out.

Students smashed potted plants in Senate Hall (photo: Sne Ngxukumeshe)

“I fully believe in the right to protest, but you need to do it peacefully”

Uzair, a second-year psychology student, was waiting to speak with staff at the fees office when the protestors came down the corridor. He filmed the scene.

The protestors were screaming and singing and the staff had all of us students go into the office and they locked the doors. Protestors banged on the windows, trying to get in. Eventually, they found some cracks in the windows and let off fire extinguishers. We were all coughing, but the staff called the security, who escorted us out the back entrance.

I was a bit shaken, but I went back to my classes. When I left campus at quarter past one, the protest was still going on. I fully believe in the right to protest, but you need to do it peacefully, without disrupting others. They should think about what they really want to achieve.

No injuries were reported, according to local media, though several windows were broken.

“Political opportunism was one of the negative parts of this imprtant movement”

Aaisha Dadi Patel is a journalist who has been following the protests closely. She also noted the divisions at today’s protests.

I think it is feasible to imagine that the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters) had a role in stirring things up. They are opposed to President Jacob Zuma and I can see them wanting to destabilize things under his rule. So I think political opportunism was one of the negative aspects of the student movement that we saw today. There were also a lot of complaints that women, especially black women and women of color, and the LGBTI community are being excluded from the movement.

These are things that the movement needs to work out, because it is bringing up really important points. Here in South Africa, we are 20 years into our democracy and we need to look critically at ourselves. Black people were subjugated and oppressed for many years and things aren’t all peachy now. (Editor’s note: Studies have shown that South Africa is more unequal now than under apartheid.) It’s easy to dismiss the protestors and to write it off as stereotypical "black violence", but they have real concerns. We can’t be policing black anger, there is a right to be angry at the system.