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#FeesMustFall elite rewarded but higher education is still not free

The workers' gains through insourcing have been reversed by activists wielding political capital to put themselves at the dinner table, says the writer. /Eugene Coetzee
The workers' gains through insourcing have been reversed by activists wielding political capital to put themselves at the dinner table, says the writer. /Eugene Coetzee

The date is October 17 2016, a little over 10 months after I first graced the hallowed yet thorny grounds of Nelson Mandela University.

After a fairly peaceful sleep, we woke up to the sounds of stun grenades. The university had triggered an interdict after rolling mass action under the banner of the FeesMustFall protests, which were sweeping across national campuses with the aggression of a volcano.

The genesis of the protests is a highly contested subject matter that has divided students between the suppressed voices from historically black universities who have been inhaling teargas since the turn of the century and the newly minted revolutionaries with vast media coverage.

This is my reflection, three years later, on the lives of those who went to the picket lines for a just cause and ended up with criminal records. Their fellow comrades were rewarded with political careers as gallant "FeesMustFall" activists by the same band of oppressors they fought against.

I would also like to invoke a sense of consciousness on those who made history on their respective campuses by pushing the wheels of the revolution in favour of insourcing scores of workers only to reverse those gains by wielding the political capital to put themselves at the dinner table.

It would be a fallacy to say there has not been much progress achieved since the first FeesMustFall protests erupted.

This ultimately led to the declaration of free education by former president Jacob Zuma on the eve of the 2017 ANC Nasrec conference.

Although the protests were a necessary precondition to agitate the declaration, it would be naive to attribute the victory solely behind the hashtag.

Rather, it should be seen as a product of continued struggle in higher education that stretches back many generations.

As it was when the ANC won the first democratic elections in 1994, an elite class of bureaucratic bourgeoisie emerged while thousands of Umkhonto weSizwe combatants returned to the country to be welcomed by poverty at their doorsteps.

The protests have produced many "leaders" who went on to carve political careers for themselves through the collective plight of South African students.

Wits University, the "main" site of struggle of the FeesMustFall movement (as a result of institutional privilege), has seen its former leaders such as Nompendulo Mkhatshwa and Fasiha Hassan named on the ANC's parliamentary list.

The EFF named other student leaders on its list in the form of Vuyani Pambo and Naledi Chirwa.

It is not incorrect for these young leaders to make the list.

The only thing that raises questions is the institutional privilege that has seen "leaders" of the protests only coming from one strata of South African universities.

If political parties were genuine about wanting the voice of South African students to be fully represented at the legislative arm of government, they would have been inclusive also of the historically black universities like Fort Hare and Zululand.

After the Bantu Education Act was extended to "black" universities, what they are producing is still undermined.

However, what is different now is that it is undermined by the very people who are claiming to be fighting against it.

Robert Sobukwe once said: "Fort Hare must be to black people what Stellenbosch is to the Afrikaner."

Until total equality is attained in the higher education sector in SA, education is not free.

Gwala is deputy chairperson of Sasco's Claude Qavane branch and political science postgraduate at Nelson Mandela University

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