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South Africa – Mazibuko on how studen ts can win fees fight

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University of Cape Town academics and health faculty students demonstrate outside Parliament last week. The government cannot promise to freeze university fees when it does not have the money. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

University of Cape Town academics and health faculty students demonstrate outside Parliament last week. The government cannot promise to freeze university fees when it does not have the money. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

I HAD the privilege last week of participating in the inaugural Robben Island Dialogues, a series of discussions about inclusivity in SA’s economy and society, convened by Archbishop Emeritus Njongonkulu Ndungane.

The audience was primarily made up of young people — some still at high school, others representing civil society organisations for the youth, and a large number of participants from Cape Town’s main university campuses, the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and the University of Cape Town (UCT).

The series is an effort by Ndungane to kick-start an intergenerational conversation between those who worked to secure SA’s transition from repression to democracy, and the young people who will inherit their legacy — whether it is good or bad.

With the 2016 Fees Must Fall protests high on the agenda, there was a palpable sense of anger from the young people in the room, many of whom expressed their disillusionment with the generation that came before them.

References to the “old guard” as having failed SA were many and impassioned, as were calls for those in leadership to step aside and make way for the generation that must correct their mistakes.

As the discussion unfolded, I found it difficult to believe that a whole year had passed since we last addressed the critical issue of fee increases in higher education.

In the intervening months, SA has also endured a succession of crises in public leadership, from a president found to be in breach of his oath of office to allegations that his administration has peddled its constitutional responsibilities to the highest bidder. This was followed by a veritable ANC meltdown during the local government elections, which has done little to temper the hubris and the avarice of the president’s allies in the national government.

The young people of Robben Island were fair to call out SA’s leaders for censure.

But the discussion also led me to question how it was that we were facing the same issues in 2016 that students worked relentlessly to resolve through protest action a year ago.

In the past 12 months, young people have had a critical opportunity to demonstrate the leadership their predecessors have not shown on this issue of national importance. Indeed, much journalistic ink was spilled in 2015 on the question of sustainability: what would the long-term solution to the funding crisis be once students had secured a moratorium on fee hikes?

Did they plan to march to the Union Buildings every year in an effort to secure financial inclusivity on campuses? And if so, how long was this likely to remain an effective strategy? In short, did students have any plans to make the transition from public protest to active participation?

One of my co-panellists last week was Lovelyn Nwadeyi, the Stellenbosch University alumna who famously delivered an impassioned call to transform the school’s language policy during the university’s annual convocation earlier this year.

Nwadeyi was part of a group of black Stellenbosch alumni who spent months running a campaign to add youth and diversity to the executive committee of the university convocation. Sadly, the group failed to secure the nomination of any of its candidates — including Nwadeyi, who lost the election for vice-president of the executive committee by a mere 15 votes.

The deepest disappointment for the candidates and their supporters was learning on the day of the convocation that university alumni who had graduated decades before had been bused in from local retirement villages by opposing candidates in order to enforce the status quo.

Nwadeyi’s disappointment was tempered by the fact that she and her colleagues have now learned what must be done in order to win the next time around.

There is a lesson here for the students of Fees Must Fall 2016. Protest should lead to more substantive engagement with (and contestation for) the power structures in which policy decision-making takes place.

Students can protest against the status quo every year, accompanied by increasing levels of disruption and destruction as the task of gaining public attention grows more difficult, or they can engage with the institutions responsible for making substantive decisions about higher education policy and budget allocation, and ensure they win this battle for themselves and for the generations of students to come.

Mazibuko, a former parliamentary leader of the DA, is a resident fellow of the Harvard Institute of Politics.

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