On Thursday, September 15th, I attended a mass meeting led by student and worker protesters declaring that they would be shutting the University of Cape Town down in order to protest some of the stated injustices occurring at UCT. And that they did. Since that Thursday meeting, I have not had classes and UCT has been shut down with the intention to reopen on the 3rd of October.
You may be asking what these protests are all about that are causing this disruption? …. Well, I am glad you asked.
These protests fall under the movement of Fees Must Fall or creating a decolonized, free, and equal opportunity for education. This is a national protest that is happening at universities throughout South Africa. Since race plays such a huge role in South Africa due to its history with apartheid and colonization, blackness is often associated with poverty as people of color create up the majority of the working class and those who cannot afford this higher level education. Therefore these protests have many demands, but essentially they deal with making a free education, worker rights, and just eliminated the racist or white supremacy concepts that exist in the secondary level institutions across South Africa.
As these protests were all unfolding around me, my first thought and emotion was empowerment and inspiration. Never before in my life, have I seen a group of people come together in such solidarity to oppose regulations that were seen as unjust. More than that – history in the making was happening around me and I got to witness it and have the opportunity to take part in it somehow and someway. And with these emotions fueling my thinking – I was going to try join this protest and fight for justice. Then after someone challenged my impulsive jump to participate, I took a step back and had to ask the question, do I really support free education? It sounds like a good concept, but in reality, I saw a poor quality education because universities are organizations that make their money from tuition – and therefore just depending on this money to come from the government could likely result in an underfunded institution. I then had another “hold up” moment and questioned why this protests where shutting down the school when the issue was more of a government problem.
Through going to the mass meetings held by the protesters, talking to students of UCT, and doing some independent research – this is what I have come to understand. The zero fees policy, through funding by the government, is possible as other countries have implemented it. More than that, the South Africa government is allocating their money in ways that could be budgeted in a more constructive and positive way than how it is happening now – and thus a free education is seen as feasible.
As to the point of why the school is being shutdown, though it is blocking students who want to get their education, it is enabling students who want to protest without getting penalized. Because of that – when class was in session and the shutdown was happening, protesters were going classroom to classroom to interrupt it and shut the university down with the goal to have it reopen once their demands about fees and other rights were heard and some action is taken. On top of that, this protest (Fees Must Fall) happened last school year and shut down the university for two weeks. The way the issue was resolved was the government agreeing to make a plan so that a free education would be put into place, but the government didn’t end up following through. Therefore, the protesters are going to the government but also the university, because UCT did not play their part in trying to make this change. UCT Management knew these protests were going to happen (most students I talked to since I have been here talked about protests being very likely), so UCT management, did not play their role either in trying to make the shift in their education system.
Now as I am in this second week of having no school – I don’t view this as an extended vacation, but as a time to grow, understand, and learn. The time that I am currently experiencing is a sensitive time with many unknowns. People don’t know if school will be closed another week or even to the extreme – shut down for the rest of the semester. This makes it a sensitive and conflicted time as students have many different levels of support and opposition to what is happening around us. So where do I stand in this sensitive and uncertain time?
I stand in solidarity.
I back this protest because it is about justice, equality, and breaking down walls. There are demands that I don’t fully back and a desire for it to be done differently, but as I movement as a whole – I am in solidarity with my fellow students who seek out this justice. I am not at the forefront of the marches as that is not my place, but I am support of what’s going on around me.
It is important to state that I recognize my privilege as an abroad student in this situation as it is easier for me to be chill with what’s happening because I know even though my plans are changing, that no matter what, somehow my home university as well as the program I am abroad with will make sure that I get the credits that I came here to accomplish. That’s not really the privilege of a South African student. And that’s why this is a sensitive time because this protest is progressive in terms of the future, but it is also destructive for the now.
When I choose to study abroad, I wasn’t choosing to board the plane to a 6 month vacation, but rather, I came here to learn and embrace culture to the fullest – so it is empowering to be a part of history and watch progress be fought for in a place where much progress needs to be had. As an American abroad student – this has nothing to do with me – but also is has everything to do with me. As a human in this unjust and oppressive world, I believe it is our duty to stand up for justice and that’s what is happening with these protests. I do wish that this movement could be done in a less destructive way, but in order to have the voice of the oppressed heard and listened to –this is one of the few “peaceful” options. So will I be extending my departure date? Will I be taking exams? Will I miss my favorite holiday of Thanksgiving? All these questions are unknown, but I am not worried with my issues because the issues we are dealing with is much bigger than me – it’s about justice and I stand for justice.