“We have set out on a quest for true humanity, and somewhere on the distant horizon we can see the glittering prize. Let us march forth with courage and determination, drawing strength from our common plight and our brotherhood. In time we shall be in position to bestow upon South Africa the greatest gift possible - a more human face.” –Steve Biko, “Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity”
From my first weeks in Cape Town, I had people telling me the University of Cape Town would shut down this semester. And here we are.
In light of a potential 8-10% increase in fees, protests have resumed at UCT. This Tuesday the Student Representative Council led a campus mass meeting to discuss the potential increase and put forth a number of demands on the university management. The demands include a 0% fee increase, a Commission of Inquiry into the frequent deaths by suicide of black students, demilitarization of campus, and adequate housing. For the full and updated list of demands see the attached document. Protests and class disruptions Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday have prompted the University to suspend all in person lectures, tutorials, and tests for most of Thursday and all of Friday. This successful temporary shutdown brings UCT activists to solidarity with Cape Peninsula University and University of Free State who have long been protesting this semester. A few UCT faculties are already speaking of shutting down for the remainder of the semester.
In talks with the SRC, the University has yet to adequately respond to any demands aside from disclosing how much they spend on private security, a troubling R24.28 million over the past two years. The past few days have given me a chance to witness first hand the increasing militarization of the university. Campus Protection Services and private security have been heavily policing campus from the very first call for a mass meeting. Despite the water crisis throughout South Africa, a vehicle armed with a water cannon policed protesting students on Thursday. Students also face threats of stun grenades, rubber bullets, and brute force. Despite the widely peaceful nature of the FMF protests, one UCT student has already been arrested near Parliament in a manner where police show a clear disregard for his wellbeing. Also troubling is the way many students show support for such violence and racialized policing. One need not look very far on social media to see calls for backlash against protesting students with ‘guns filled with rubber bullets,’ ‘pickaxe handles,’ ‘mass arrests,’ ‘expulsions,’ and much more. In the past few days, a group of UCT students themselves have racially profiled black students and prevented them from entering the library for fear of disruptions.
Despite such backlash and threats, the university is successfully shut down for moment, a strong tactic for achieving student demands. But of course the are more challenges ahead for the movement. Momentum must be maintained, and it has already received a setback in an interdict from UCT with the Western Cape High Court against ‘all those persons participating, or intending to participate, in unlawful conduct at the applicant’s [UCT’s] properties.’ Another challenge looms as the new SRC will soon take charge. The now Economic Freedom Fighter-led SRC is playing a large role in leading the protests, but very soon the new Democratic Alliance Student Organization-led SRC will take charge. In an upset earlier this month, DASO, a far less radical party that does not support the protests or free education for all, won nine seats out of fifteeen in the upcoming Student Representative Council. Students of course are than willing and able to continue to fighting as individuals, but in winning a large majority in the SRC DASO has gained a lot of influence at the institution. If the shutdown continues, activists still face the challenge of fighting the implementation of blended learning models where students do not come to class but complete coursework virtually over the online Vula student service. Such a system profoundly disadvantages students do not have consistent access to internet and computers outside of campus, most often the same students are most affected by exorbitant university fees.
As student activist at my home institution, I was greatly influenced by the RMF and FMF protests in my decision to come to University of Cape Town. I have already learned so much. I hope I can bring these lessons back home with me and apply them to my activism in United States. Throughout student activism here, I particularly admire the unity between the student and worker struggles, the collaboration across different universities, and the organizational strategies used to promote mass participation and undercut traditional solitary leadership. Students activists at UCT are continuing in the long tradition of transformative social action in South Africa. And despite three long years of emotionally and physically draining protests, students remain empowered.
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<p>Hello! I'm a current junior at Grinnell College, studying sociology and planning to go into public health policy. Outside of classes, I stay busy by volunteering to help (and play with!) dogs at the local animal shelter and organizing around national issues with other on-campus student activists. This semester in Cape Town will be my first time out of the United Staes, and I'm beyond excited to see where it takes me.</p>