Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”
- Nelson Mandela
As of late, I’ve been feeling as though my study abroad has been lacking in any actual studying. It’s been just over five weeks since I’ve last attended a class, or made the long walk up the Jameson steps to campus. Don’t get me wrong, the break in classes has been a welcome one, as I’ve been able to fill the free days with trips and activities, checking more and more off my Cape Town bucket list. However, over the past five weeks as I’ve been running around exploring the city, the University of Cape Town campus has been taken over by protesting students.
On September 15th, students began their peaceful protests on the UCT campus in hopes of bringing free secondary education to the people of South Africa. This movement, known most commonly as #feesmustfall is not new to South African students. Frustrations have been building for over a year, as students voiced their anger last October over proposed university fee increases that they argued many students could not afford. Their qualms were settled after South African President Jacob Zuma announced that the 2016 school year would not see an increase in fees. However, on the 19th of September when it was released that school fees for 2017 could increase upwards of 8%, students returned to their protests, fully committed to continuing until everyone in South Africa could have access to free education.
For many of the protestors, however, their concerns are less about the increase of fees, but rather the racial divide that they create within the university systems. The apartheid and the systematic racism of the country’s past has created deep racial inequality, and a wealth gap that leaves many black individuals in the poorest percentage of the country. The increase in fees, activists claim, leave large amounts of black students alienated and unable to pursue a higher education. So, as the protesters push for free education, they also push for the “decolonization” of higher institutions.
The protests, their means, and their goals have shifted over the past few weeks as the university has taken measures to push back and resume academic activities. Both sides, it seems, have made some mistakes. Certain protestors have turned violent, while the university has brought in private security leading some students to feel anxious and even racially profiled.
As an international visiting student it’s been a learning experience. Our program director, Alan Jansen has been vigilant about keeping us updated as the events play out, and ensuring our safety. It’s interesting to hear the variety of perspectives that we get from him, as well as the other South Africans I’ve come to know during my time here.
South Africa’s democracy is only two years older than I am; it is new, ever changing, and still struggling to overcome the remnants of the troubled past. University fees are just a small part of the country’s larger issue, but they have become a symbol for change and the brighter future that South Africa’s younger generation imagine for their country.