What are the demands of UP Fees Must Fall?
The demands of UP Fees Must Fall are our own internal demands, together with the [national] demand. We kept our memorandum short, but it actually has a lot of things to unpack. Number one was the lifting of all suspensions of all students that have been participating in the call for free decolonised education, number two, we are calling for mass engagement with the university executive, including the council, so that we can talk and we can chart a way forward on how we are going to commit ourselves to the call for free decolonised education as a university and commit ourselves to free education, and the third one is a bunch of things: we put it under the banner of decolonising UP. Now this includes our res culture, curriculum issues, a bunch of things that happen on campus, obviously the process of outsourcing has also started. There is a national call that we are making. We are calling for free decolonised education. As we know government is the one who is supposed to be the service provider, and really being the one to facilitate the realisation of free decolonised education. We are also calling for the demilitarisation of our campus. We are calling for the decommodification of a university degree. We are also calling for the state security services, SAPS and SANDF, to handle protesters in a different way, even in the future, not just for the student movement at the moment.
What does free, quality, decolonised education mean?
It means the decommodification of education. At the moment we find ourselves in a country or even in a global economy where education is commodified. Our cry is that education must be seen as a social good, and because it’s a social good it must be decommmodifed. The issue around decolonisation, it talks about ridding our university, our primary schools, our high schools, in South Africa from our colonial history which works to see [some] as more deserving than others, to subjugate people, and to [promote], at the same time, a Western idea. We are saying that we need to re-enter that,
Let’s tell our own stories as Africans in Africa. Let us be a university that focuses and speaks to the needs, wants and identities of Africans as African people.
UP Fees Must Fall, and Fees Must Fall movements across the country have had a significant impact on university campuses across the country. What do you think your impact has been on UP’s campuses?
One, I think what the Fees Must Fall movement, both at UP and nationally has done, is given an opportunity to the silent voices to be able to speak. For far too long university management and particular voices, academics, have had a hegemony over those voices that are seen to be legitimate. What UP Fees Must Fall has done is said that those voices that have been marginalised, those voices that have been silenced, are now able to speak truth to power.
Number two, we have forced discourse around societal issues that previously were swept under the carpet. People are now talking about what is the role of university, and how the university plays into inequality in our country. So that’s what UP Fees Must Fall has done in terms of our campuses; [they] are not operating and functioning as usual and of course that is the UP Fees Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movement’s goal – that business should not continue as usual because if business were to continue as usual that means the issues that are being put on the table would’ve been swept under the carpet. So the UP Fees Must Fall’s influence on campus, it has disrupted normal function as usual so that we can now start talking and start moving toward a more human society, a more equal society, a decolonised society.
In terms of the academic year, how does UP Fees Must Fall look at completing the academic year?
This question comes up many a times, and I think I should put it on record that the students involved in these fee protests want to complete the year. They are not students who are failing, as others have put it out. In fact most of these students are most of your top achievers within their courses. So one, yes we do want to complete our year, but the question comes, if we are going to complete our year now, what happens to our struggle and our fight for free decolonised education? And if the answer means that the fight for free decolonised education is going to be put on hold I believe that when we weigh it up it means that we need to continue our struggle for free decolonised education, even if it means we sacrifice part of our academic year. So that this will allow for a certain restructuring of our [academic] calendar, come next year. If it means writing in January I think most of the UP Fees Must Fall, and Fees Must Fall nationally, are willing to do that. I think we are willing to fight until we have free decolonised education. Academics is important, but at the moment free decolonised education is [more] important so that when we return to class we have free decolonised education.
There are other student groups who have said things such as “We want to study”, “You are infringing on our right to education”. In terms of that, how does UP Fees Must Fall look at these claims?
Again, this is an interesting question that comes up many a time, and it shows that the contradictions within those voices themselves. Because when we call for free education you write articles about it, we cry about it, and most of these students [that] are saying they want to go to class are the ones that come back to us and say that education is a privilege. But then the moment we disrupt that privilege they come back to us and say it’s a right, so I think they need to get their story right first. I’m not attacking them but they need to find themselves and position themselves in what it is that they really believe.
Now as UP Fees Must Fall we believe that education is a social good, and should be a right, and for that very reason we’re disrupting the current status quo which puts education as a privilege, and we are saying to those students, in fact we’re fighting for you as well. Yes, it might be an inconvenience, but I don’t think there has been any social change or any social good that has come from people being [angry]. There is always going to be some form of discomfort and unfortunately to those students there is going to be a discomfort but at the end of the day it’s going to be something that benefits all. I need to remind them that in as much as we are privileged to be in institutions of higher learning there are thousands and thousands, I mean 200 000 matriculants who qualify for university but are unable to come to university, hundreds of thousands of students that do make it into university and end up dropping out of university because they don’t have the funding, they don’t have the money, and are excluded academically or financially. In fact, I think that’s a minority that are saying lets go back to class and there’s a majority that can’t even get into class.
What about groups that support the call for free quality decolonised education, but also want to return to class? How does UP Fees Must Fall react to these groups?
We’ve had conversations with Open UP and their stance is almost, or at least their initial stance has been that there should be parallel engagements: lets open up universities, let’s go to class, whilst at the same time negotiating. But the problem with such a notion is that the very poor bodies, the very bodies that are calling for free education, and are most affected are going to be even more affected because they’re the ones that are going to be marching, they’re the ones that are going to be going to negotiation rooms, they’re the ones that are going to be doing all the ground work while the majority of those that are privileged enough will be in class. So in as much as they are calling for this, we believe that they need to support this whole heartedly, and if people are going to say they really support the call we need to see some of the work that they’re doing. Let them write about it, let them come into the streets with us. It cannot be that you support the cause but you have not been seen in any way supporting the cause. So really our call is to say yes, going to class is something that we all want, but cannot be right that we are going to class while many are still outside class and we have not received what we are fighting for.
In terms of engagement with UP, how does UP Fees Must Fall look at the attempted processes of engagement?
Well, we believe that we are not going to, as this is a broad social movement. We do not believe in closed door meetings as many a times when we have closed door meetings student leaders are co-opted, they are convinced otherwise by university management. So we are saying let us have an open discussion, an open broad discussion. This has been placed at the universities table for a while. [At] our first protest we called the Vice-Chancellor to ask her a few questions while we were handing in the memorandum. In that moment she refused really to answer student questions but we expected her to answer to our memorandum. She didn’t respond to our memorandum, and the answers we are getting is [that] she does not see us, she does not know who to speak to, but we are saying as a movement we are very visible, here we are we are making a noise, there are many platforms where she could have replied to our memorandum.
Following that we sent a letter to give her the terms of engagement of how we’d be willing to come and sit down with her and have a conversation around that, and she refuses to respond to us directly. She continues to respond through social media. She responds to the media, but she does not speak to the material stakeholders who are the students who are calling for this decolonised education. So at this moment it’s very evident that the university, although they are pushing that they want to engage and that they are engaging, is that they do not want to engage, there has not been one time when they have spoken to students […] and continues to engage with us in what I’d call mafia tactics where she wants to control the narrative to the public and is telling the world that students don’t want to engage, but students are in fact calling for engagement.
What would the ideal form of engagement be between students and the Vice-Chancellor?
The ideal form would be certain conditions need to be met. If the university considers itself to be an intellectual space, to be a space of exchanging ideas, that needs to happen at an equal level. It cannot be that there’s a hierarchy where are some are more subordinate, and others are superior. So we need to level down the grounds and say we will be speaking as equals. That’s the first condition that we are calling for, and we are calling for suspensions to be lifted, this is because these students leaders that have been suspended are material stakeholders themselves and it cannot be that we have a conversation around Fees Must Fall where people that have been at the forefront are excluded from this conversation. We are saying if you are going to have the conversation on university campus, the university campus has to be demilitarised. Until it is demilitarised we can only have a conversation on neutral ground. The conversation must not be about “is free education feasible”, but it should be rather about how we are going to obtain it.
These are some the conditions we put on the table to say should we want to engage, that how we’re going to engage, but we also call for a multi-stakeholder meeting where those that are involved, those that are concerned, are able to have these conversations so that the voices are not limited. So we need workers to be there, cleaners, security guards as employees of the university, academics should be there together with students, Senate, Council, […] for these different voices to be heard so that we can move together as a university.
What is the next step for UP Fees Must Fall in the process of achieving the demands?
I think it’s been very clear that the Vice- Chancellor is really refusing to engage with students and has not taken us seriously. She’s responded with violence, in terms of the militarisation of campus. She insists of continuing with classes while she knows that those who will be marginalised, the most will be poor and black students. So what we are saying is business will not continue as usual as much as they’ve decided to have online classes and some classes on campus, those classes cannot continue as they continue our inequality. So as Fees Must Fall we reject the notion of continuing these classes under these conditions and we’ll do anything within our power to challenge that, that’s the first part.
The second part is that we are going to start with our programmes in regional solidarity and national solidarity in moving in attacking centres of power in our country. Today in Tshwane there is a planned march to the Treasury. These are some of the steps we are taking. The way forward really is to continue on both fronts, putting pressure on the university to say if you are going to continue with classes, it must be under certain conditions, you must support the call for free education. Failure to do so, classes and academic activities will be disrupted. On the other hand it’s to continue our fight against government and capital.
UP itself cannot provide free education, and Fees Must Fall is taking demands to the government. Where does the university and government interact in terms of providing free education?
UP Fees Must Fall is saying, the university is the one which provides education, and continuously talks of institutional autonomy. We are saying if that is the case, the university needs to support us. We know the university is not going to give us free education, they do not have the money, but they’re the ones who can facilitate the idea of a decolonised education, the spaces that we find ourselves in. They need to commit to changing the spaces, to changing the curriculum. In fact they should be setting up an institution that will think around free education. They’re saying that they support the causes without showing us; acting is disingenuous from their side because they are really showing us that they don’t support it. So if they support it, the Vice-Chancellor would’ve closed the university for three days, […] and joined us as we go to government. So part of our shutting down on campus is because there are things internally that the university can change, but also putting pressure on the university to give us support, to back us in our struggle against government.
How many students who are part of Fees Must Fall have been arrested or suspended?
At the current moment at UP, there are seven students that we are aware of. There might be more that have not come out with their suspensions, but there are seven leaders, with the most recent one coming at the end of last week, whereas the others came in September. In terms of arrests, there have been about five arrests of students at UP, most of which are out now, with one of the leaders languishing at Kgosi Mampuru [Prison] awaiting his bail hearing. The suspensions have shown us that the university will do anything in its capacity to press students. It’s only particular students have been targeted with suspensions. We reject the suspensions; it shows very draconian measures taken by the university and we believe that in order for us to have a conducive learning system we call for the lifting of all suspensions of these student leaders as their only crime is fighting for free decolonised education.
It’s very worrying that all seven suspended students come from the EFF Student Command. This shows clear victimisation on one particular political party. Even though UP Fees Must Fall sees itself as a non-partisan student body made up of various student organisations and individuals, workers, and academics, this victimisation of EFF Student Command is very problematic, especially in relation to other parties that have ben opposed to this protest that have also been very violent, have been involved in other protests and violating, and being brutal to students. Case in example is Afriforum that brings to campus the national leadership which are not students but rather adults in the working world. How is it that we are allowing these students on to campus to fight, to brutalise our protesting students? It cannot be right that they are not getting dealt with. This shows clear selectivity from the university. It’s a confirmation of what many people have been saying, that in fact this university is anti-poor, anti-black, and very racist.
Photo: Fezikile Msimang