On Saturday 24 October 2015, I arrived back in South Africa after a 2-week holiday on Madagascar. Most of the time, we were in remote areas with little or no connectivity and I had taken the opportunity to go on a much-needed digital detox. As I walked through the airport, I started sensing that something had happened while I was away. I spotted a headline on a newspaper, overheard parts of a conversation in the immigration queue, and caught fragments of it on the radio.
Student protests across the country was what I gathered. At first, I dismissed it as just another protest march. They happen all the time in South Africa and are often counterproductive in many ways, whether it is taxi drivers protesting against lower bus fares (how about upping your game instead to compete?); trade unions that have promised their members unrealistic wage increases (more often than not the workers lose more money during their time on strike than the increase will give them over a year or more of working); or commuters burning trains because their daily commute is unmanageable (yeah, ’cause that is really going to make things better!?).
But the more I learned, the more I realised that this was different. It seemed that although things had gotten out of hand in some places, the protestors were taking their responsibility seriously (and even cleaning up after the marches). Students of all colour, religion and social background were standing side by side (in one extraordinary event, non-muslim students even created a safe space for their muslim peers to pray during the commotion). But most of all, the demands were neither unrealistic nor unjustifiable: free undergraduate university education for all South Africans.
I believe that this excerpt from Amnesty International’s University Groups sums up the justification for these countrywide marches:
“The right to education, including higher education, is a human right. International human rights law and the South African constitution puts an obligation on the state to progressively make higher education more accessible to everyone.
By raising university fees without accounting for the decrease in access, the state is neglecting this obligation. The fee increase exacerbates the academic exclusion of poor and working class students. It may constitute a human rights violation and it may be unconstitutional.
If university education is restricted to the wealthy elite, then universities will fail in their duty to redress South Africa’s historical injustices and address the staggering wealth inequality. It is unacceptable for our education system to only serve a privileged minority of society.” (from Times Live)
The youth is the future. It is only by investing in them that a country can develop and thrive. I wish with all my heart that I could have been at one of these marches to show my support for this crucial cause. I am still trying to figure out how I can support #FeesMustFall going forward, but one thing is for sure: this is the dawn of yet a new beginning, South Africans standing side-by-side fighting for the future of this beautiful country.