THE current university student protests against high and rising university fees spreading like wildfire across South African university campuses are not the first in our history. And they will not be the last.
We should have seen them coming but, like others in the past, those in leadership positions seem to have held on for too long before agreeing to open, frank discussions with the unhappy students.
Let us remember that it took massive, sustained protests by mostly black South African students to prevent the apartheid state from imposing Afrikaans as a language of instruction in 1976. The student-led protests of the 1980s also contributed much to rendering apartheid unworkable.
But such protests are not unique to South Africa.
Sudent protests elsewhere
Throughout modern history, and in many parts of the world, students have used sustained protest action to trigger socio-political change or to prevent proposed changes they did not want.
In what began as a protest for sexual liberation – a demand for the right to receive guests of the opposite sex in university dormitories – French students staged what became historic protest action in 1962. They were later joined by workers and extended the protests to demand more student influence over the education system and, subsequently, a complete overhaul of the French socio-economic structure.
The success realised by these student protests in 1962 remains a point of reference for many historians in discussions about modern French history, as they created a major turning point in how French society functions up to today.
Ironically, elsewhere in the world white American students staged protests against the admission of the first black student at the University of Mississippi, also in 1962. More recently, Kenyan students staged several protests in 1997 against police brutality, and in 2014 against proposed tuition fee hikes.
We saw more protests in the UK in 2010 when the National Union of Students and the University and College Union joined hands to lead massive protests against proposed government cuts on funding for tuition fees. The students feared bigger debts as a result of student loans they would have to pay back after completing their studies. Seem familiar?
Springboard to other issues
Typically, student protests end up morphing into other issues. It’s almost like the leaders reach an inevitable “while we’re at it” moment in their march, to include other thorny issues.
Rhodes Must Fall, Open Stellenbosch and other campus protests that we witnessed earlier this year should have been seen in this light by all of us, as it was just a matter of time before other, lingering issues received attention from the students.
Speaking in this week’s panel discussion on TV show The Justice Factor, incoming Wits SRC president Nompendulo Mkhatshwa eloquently explained the route travelled before they got to where they and, by extension, all of us are today.
Reportedly, following several meetings with various levels of university management, the students reached a point where they felt their pleas at Wits management were falling on deaf ears. According to Mkhatshwa, Wits students felt Professor Adam Habib, their vice-chancellor and principal, was not entirely honest with their representatives.
She explained that it was only when students began to adopt a harder stance towards university management that Habib began showing early signs of listening, including his forced return from Durban, where he had gone to attend an education summit.
The world is a different place
Assuming they grew up in this country, the current generation of university vice-chancellors and principals must have been where current students find themselves today; at least in as far as frustration with not being taken seriously is concerned.
Being supposedly older and wiser is not a sufficient excuse not to remember what students are capable of. No doubt, the challenges they face in terms of available funds and growing overheads at universities are everyone’s problem, especially government and big business, which benefit from graduate skills.
But honest engagement with student representative councils, right from the start, is the only way to avoid or contain situations that will lead to unnecessary damage to public facilities.
While the public’s sympathy quotient for the students is by no means unlimited, especially when they behave like thugs, university management has a lot more to lose in terms of goodwill and reputation if it keeps failing to get it right and to seriously integrate student input in decision-making. This is a different world we live in.