25 September 2016

Interviewing Student Protesters

Towards the end of 2015, mass protest plagued through South Africa. These protests were lead by the country's youth- specifically students studying at university level. These protests began peacefully and with a common goal in mind- lowered university fees, however, after not too long, every university in the country took their anger to the streets, with the result of rubber bullets being fired at protesting students.

This nation-wide debacle began at a university in Johannesburg, the University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits. In 2010, it was found that 20% of South Africans fell below the poverty line, with the expectation for that statistic to rise. Many students battle to find the money to get to university, never mind the fees involved in staying at that university. Last year, local universities announced a fee increase off 10.5% for the following year (2016), despite a 6% raise in the inflation rate, for that year.

Towards the end of October, about a week or so after universities returned to a somewhat-sense of normality, I ventured out to Wits to speak to the students. I wanted to understand, directly from them, why they were-or weren't- getting involved in the protests and what inspired their decision.

Students helped me to understand that their protests were fueled from initial protests on outsourcing. Cleaners, gardeners and other manual laborers were employed by a parent company, who were then hired by the universities. The staff wanted to be employed directly by the universities- which is accompanied with better benefits. Their dissatisfaction fueled mass-gatherings, which eventually started a chain reaction when the students were dissatisfied. The movement became known as Fees Must Fall.

The first individuals that I spoke to are pictured below, in front of 'The Great Hall'. The lady on the left illustrated to me that she was instrumental in the movement, and actually led many of the protests. When they spoke to me, it really helped me to understand their fight. For the first time, this movement had faces and names with whom I could identify. 

I got into my car that afternoon and turned the radio on- like always. I caught the middle of the 5 o'clock news bulletin which stated that a protest had just erupted at a neighboring university- the University of Johannesburg.  Honestly, without much thought I was steering towards the protest- quite unwittingly to be honest. I was determined to get their stories.

Driving up to the embankment where the protests were, I first took notice of the massive tank-like police vehicles that lined the streets. Immediately, I was filled with a sense of unease. Crowds of police were present. Police were protected by bullet proof vests and shield. Their presence silently raised the tempo by a few notches. If things were to take a turn, I somehow doubted my grey-knitted jersey would protect me I would not be safe. However, by this point any wit inside me was long gone. I was getting what I came for- these people's stories.

Built into the African culture is song. The rhythm and melodies of old tribal beats remain indented into South African's lives. This is evident if one looks back at Apartheid struggle song and at this protest. For the past few weeks, I had heard news reports of violent gatherings. This was not that. People with a common goal of being heard and addressed to, were gathering and had turn to the one thing which has always been there- song.

This events took place almost a year ago. The conclusion was a 0% fee increase for 2016 fees. However, this has proved to be a problem. Nearly one year later, university students have once again broken out in protest- with an increasing theme of violence. The protest, which prevented students from entering their universities, began for the same reason-the announcement of 2017 fee increases.  

During one interview, last year, a student had said that "If this should happen again, let it" and that is exactly what South Africans are seeing now.

I am unsure of where the latest talks between students and government will go, but for how long can there be no fee increases?  Universities are institutions which are dependent on million of rands each year to maintain facilities.These funds have to come from somewhere. But what does a country do when its people have the right to education despite the funds to afford it? South Africa's minister of higher education has called for the closing of all public, tertiary institutions for one year. In my opinion, the aforementioned is a disastrous ideas with long-term, calamitous effect for the current youth and the youth as adults. In my eyes, a solution could be to clamp down on South Africa's corruption at the highest level- the presidency and the government. If even a third of what our 'leaders' have stolen were put into education, Fees Must Fall would not be a problem. 

In situation like these, it is important to note that each perspective has a valid argument. The issue arises in creating a long-term solution, which is in accordance with the needs of each side.

Till next time-


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