On Thursday, a cloudless Johannesburg day, students and supporters gathered at the gates of Wits to protest the impending increase in fees. At the gate next to the Origins Centre, we sang, with passion, asiyifuni iagenda yamacapitalist (We don’t want the capitalists’ agenda). My voice was hoarse from the singing and chanting, but I was proud to be a Witsie, and gratified to be gathered with other young people, taking action on the issues that profoundly affect our lives.
Then a cloud appeared. Not in the sky. Rather it was in the form of a coup from within the protest.
A group of African National Congress (ANC) comrades, in their party t-shirts driving BMWs and AUDIs, arrived to deliver pizzas and drinks for student protesters. Many students screamed and chanted, “Welcome, fellow comrades!”
With my hoarse voice, I questioned those around me, “We just sang that we don’t want capitalists’ agenda but we’re accepting charity from the party of corruption and clowns? The party that gave South Africa its neoliberal agenda; the party of BMWs and Audis?” Nobody bothered listening to me. In the midst of the huge crowd, I felt very alone.
But I was not alone. When some of the male comrades were given fruit, pizza and cold drinks, to honour them for toyitoying in the streets, my two friends joined me in calling out to them, asking what kind of a leader eats alone. Most of the students were sitting on the pavement, while these gentlemen feasted in the centre of the road. My friend suggested we take photos and tweet them. As soon as we started taking pictures, everyone began shouting at them. One member of the organising team said, “No one is bigger than the collective of students. It’s true when they say real revolutionists of the struggle are never mentioned. We have Mandela and Sobukwe here.”
In response to the taunts, one of the eaters said, “I will hit him, I can’t be told by a first year.”
Obviously, my argument is not about food. It is about how we struggle together. Are we creating a new nation where everyone’s voice and contribution is honoured? Or are we falling into the old patterns of giving our power away to personalities who care more about their own fame and fortune than the wellbeing of those they claim to represent?
Who are these men? What made them believe they had the right to co-opt the event? Why did they think they were more important than the rest of us? Why did so many cheer them, and some of the women serve them, as if they were heroes.
They are, in fact, leaders in some of the campus political parties. That was the justification for calling them the “leaders” of the protest. Which leads me to ask, “Who owns Wits’ student movement?”
South Africa needs radical structural changes. ‘Radical’ means going to the root. We need changes at the very roots of our economic structures. Radical change will not be achieved by the same methods that brought us to where we are today. We need to take back our power. Not just from the rich whites or the mega-corporations, but also from the institutions that have failed us, while serving themselves.
In a group of young, intelligent and informed students, why does our work need political party leaders? What is their function? Is it to confuse and sell out the rest of the students? Do we need them to interpret for the university administration what students want? I am sorry, but everyone in South Africa knows what students want. Do we need party leaders – male party leaders – to lend legitimacy to our protest? Are not the students themselves the best people to express their needs and demands?
We know that the process of decolonisation will not be convenient for some of us. We also need to beware of the traps of colonialism while fighting it. We must beware of the traps that give our enemies reasons to de-legitimise our struggle and activism.
As the protest continued, emerging protest leaders from student political parties arrived on campus to speak. Their voices are welcome, like the voices of other students. The parties are not, however, welcome to take over or claim a protest they did not launch.
A planning team, organised the protest over the course of meetings – which none of the pizza prize leaders attended. Whether we have a party affiliation or not, we must all support the struggles that resonate with our values. What is important, though, is that in the process we do not abandon the initial vision. On Thursday, unfortunately, we had a show by popstars who are more passionate about and obsessed with media and attention than the struggle of other black students.
As we talk about decolonisation, we should take a step back and re-evaluate our role and commitment to this change we are talking about. Radical change must include redefining “leadership”. Do we need leaders (in the old sense) in the process of revolution? Aren’t we all supposed to be leaders of our collective struggle? I think leaders are there to convenience the enemy. We are in these problems today because leaders have been misled, tricked, and fooled. We have allowed certain people believe that they know everything, and that everything depends upon them. No one should be bigger than the voice of the collective.
I laughed every time I heard Ukhozi FM playing a sound bite saying, kukhona abalandela ibhodwe eliconsayo. It’s true. We can’t afford to have people who use the struggle to build their political careers and fight their personal battles with the vice chancellor. No one is bigger than the collective voice of students. No one should be! Asiyeke ukulandela ibhodwe eliconsayo maAfrika amahle.
Sinikiwe Mqadi is part of the ACTIVATE! Change Drivers’ Network and a Mandela Rhodes Scholar, currently undertaking her honours in Bachelor Arts (Journalism and Media Studies) at the University of the Witwatersrand. She joined the protest against fees increase to achieve, in the short run, affordable student fees, and in the end, a vibrant movement where we understand our real collective power and use it wisely. Sinikiwe grew up in rural KwaZulu-Natal. She has been exceptionally fortunate to have opportunities to pursue formal education– opportunities that are rare for folks from a poor, largely illiterate, community. She is committed to making use of her gifts to benefit her own community, and similar communities, which still comprise a large portion of South Africa.
Look out for Activator Nqaba Mpofu’s Press Release on his campaign, which urges the Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, to release the no-fees report.