Our #FeesMustFall… But At What Cost?

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When Wits University students started causing a commotion about fee increases for the fast-approaching 2016 academic year at their tertiary institution – and indeed, one of our country’s most esteemed universities – roughly two weeks ago now, I can honestly say that I didn’t really bother to so much as bat an eyelid at it.

What’s more, I didn’t really read up about it online, even when it started ‘trending’ on social media and news platforms and I just barely kept abreast of the story via the radio waves.

A week later, I was no longer the lethargic bystander… A week later, I was being directly affected by what had started out as a ripple effect, which had gradually begun to spread across the country like a tsunami, gaining both speed and power as it went.

In the Western Cape, when first UCT and then Stellenbosch University (and later even UWC) students started to put their weight behind this apparent youth movement, I knew it wouldn’t be long before my own university, Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and its students came on-board too.

Sure enough, by Tuesday, my Informatics and Design campus in Roeland Street had been ‘evacuated’, as fellow CPUT students started calling for #CPUTFeesMustFall and class attendance became first, strongly inadvisable, then entirely impossible for the time being, as our Dean, HOD and lecturers advised us to stay away until further notice, giving us daily and sometimes hourly updates in the meanwhile.

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So it was that a fire kindled amongst our country’s youth, among my peers and fellow twenty-somethings… It started much as any fire does, with a small but telling spark, which quickly ignited and ultimately, turned into a kind of inferno, seemingly unquenchable, the heat increasing, the intensity mounting as it spread across the scorched and thirsty land.

If anyone in South Africa had previously doubted the power of our country’s youth, of so-called ‘Millennials’, and their fearlessness, even in the face of authoritativeness and great opposition, then after the past week, they should no longer have much room left for doubt on that score…

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DSC_4273I cannot and will not condone the destruction, vandalism or defacement of anything, be it something as simple as a rubbish bin or a glass window, and yet, at the very same time, nor can or will I condone the rather extreme measures that the SAPS police force resorted to this past week, especially on Wednesday afternoon when our Parliament was in session.

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Stun grenades, choking, blinding clouds of tear gas and rubber bullets versus unarmed university students, the majority of whom were protesting quite peacefully (unless exercising our rights has become illegal by default in this country now…)… To me, that seems like an unfair ‘fight’ and more than a little, uh, excessive.

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It was at this point, as I anxiously listened out for news bulletins on various radio stations every half hour or so, checked social media updates and conversed with my friends and fellow students, who were keeping me up-to-date with this startling and rather terrifying turn of events, that I decided to go out and do my damn job… to document the event, even if I am not fully qualified yet, because that is what a journalist does.

I know that this may sound reckless or foolish (perhaps that’s because it often is) but it’s not something we can control… It’s inexplicable but powerful, the force that drives us, that inner voice which calls us to action.

We don’t sit and wait for the action to reach us via tomorrow’s paper… We go and seek it out. So, that is what I did.

By the time I got to Spin Street, where I was hoping to meet up with one of my lecturers and a close friend and Second-Year Journalism classmate, s*** was still going down.

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I crossed the street, inching closer to Plein Street and the Parliament itself in turn, where large crowds of protesters, onlookers and a wall of police, armed with protective shields and other weapons I preferred not to contemplate, were gathered and my first encounter (I kid you not) was thirty-odd people hurtling straight towards me as police herded them backwards.

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I ducked out of the way, my body pressed against the safety of a nearby shop window where others were sheltering and waited, hoped, for a moment’s respite from this chaos so I could at least meet up with my people and follow the protest along with them so that we could observe and perhaps even be a part of something that, as I realised then, will one day become a famous (or infamous, I don’t know which yet…) and significant time in our country’s post-Apartheid history.

After that, things went from slightly to greatly stress-inducing, as I watched a student, his fist thrust into the air like a victor rather than the villain he was made out to be, being marched off towards a police van, even as his fellows cheered him for him, before I pushed upwards with the crowd and gradually progressed up Plein Street, where shop doors had been shut fast and anxious people hurried indoors, as photographers, journalists and spectators perched on walls and ledges to get a better view or position from which to cover the unfortunate but, by no means dull, series of events.

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DSC_4172DSC_4182When I reached Parliament, where hundreds of students and supporters gathered, despite the lateness of the afternoon, the police marched on, a seemingly endless line of stern-faced men and women in navy blue.

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I haven’t ever seen so many police in any one place before that hour… Though, truthfully, I felt neither unnerved, nor reassured by their presence and that was just one of the many things that surprised me.

Another was the fact that everyone gathered there was almost entirely peaceful (though some were taunting police officers, who thankfully ignored this and refused to rise to that cheap baiting)… It’s like they were, as John Mayer would say “waiting on the world to change”, giving it one more chance before they presumed to take matters into their hands and, if only through sheer will, found ways to enact those changes themselves.

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As the sun began to set to the murmur of a hundred united voices and the drumbeat of police routines, I knew it wasn’t just about seeing firsthand what was happening, satisfying my curiosity or even covering the event… Somehow, during some hard-to-define moment when I was separated from my friends but far from being alone out there, it dawned (yes, I just did that) on me that I was no longer a mere bystander in all of this.

I was one of them… Not because I am a student but because I’m tired of “all that’s going wrong with the world and those who lead it”, and I don’t want an even greater debt sentence hanging over my head before I can even fully enter into the real world.

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DSC_4225IMG_20151021_191710Shortly after that, we were forced down into the CBD and I managed to finally meet up with my two friends.

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DSC_4234It’s a good thing I did too because as we prepared to follow the crowds (who were literally just walking through the city, though I know others did overturn rubbish bins and trash the streets) the police started firing rubber bullets again.

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It was scary – really scary. Not because it was happening and I was about 10-20 metres away from the action, entirely caught up amongst the frantic running, surrounded by the yelling and screaming but because it was happening in my city, in my very suburb… No more than 40 metres away from my Fruit & Veg, from my flat complex but above all, from my safe place in this city…

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IMG_20151021_191538We got separated again, as my one friend grabbed me to protect me, steering me well clear of the chaos, the danger as he walked me home but I trusted that we would all emerge from this relatively unscathed. (In the end, that wasn’t the case for all three members of our trio but it was at least not as bad for us as for some, including one of my classmates who was quite badly hurt by a stun grenade’s impact earlier that afternoon.)

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DSC_4248During those moments, I felt alive, as the adrenaline pulsed through my veins and in retrospect, I can recognise how hell-bent I was on getting at least a dozen worthy photos or videos to show for it… but above all, I was now personally behind the #FeesMustFall movement, even if I gatecrashed the party a little late.

The following day, when UCT students especially marched with we CPUT students to our main Cape Town campus, where they shared their food, their drinks, their smokes and medical supplies but above all, their time and their solidarity with us, I felt part of something bigger… part of something that was worth supporting on some level even if I wasn’t there to protest as passionately and fiercely as others.

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DSC_4256DSC_4261I rejoiced as much as my counterparts when President Jacob Zuma, after spending hours locked in talks with student leaders and university heads from the country’s main institutions at the Union Buildings, as thousands of students waited outside, announced the 0% fee increase for 2016 and after a week of missing class and rescheduled year-end assignments and tests, I was hopeful that all would somehow be back to normal come Monday.

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Sure, the 0% increase will help me save a few of those bucks that I don’t have in my possession to spend anyway but truthfully, it won’t do much. Not for me and not for the millions of other students who cannot entirely rely on their family, surety, part- or full-time jobs, bursaries, scholarships and NSFAS to fund their studies.

Nevertheless, this matter is far from over because it seems I was wrong… You see, things aren’t close to being back to normal yet, as many universities remain closed today, and I don’t know when or if they ever will be again.

All I hope is that, through fighting for free (an admirable but economically unimaginable dream, I believe) or more affordable education, we don’t unintentionally cut off our noses to spite our faces… I don’t really want to risk failing this year because if that happens, then a fee increase next year wouldn’t have affected me so much anyway…

[Please note: All views and opinions expressed herein are entirely my own and reflect upon no institution or person other than I myself. Thank you.]

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