I was in a dimly lit bar in Observatory the evening before Fees Must Fall’s national shutdown march. It must have been seven or eight o’clock in the evening. The blue was pulling away from the sky. A combination of blaring house music and drunken conversation was digging a hole into my ears. Plumes of cheap cigarette smoke and the smell of stale beer were dancing around the air; completing the assault on my senses.
I was exhausted.
I had spent the day following Cape Town’s Fees Must Fall contingent as they marched from UCT to Rondebosch Police Station to demand the release of their arrested members. Everything from the day’s struggle chants to the ubiquitous “fees must fall” phrase had been looping in my head the entire day. I just wanted to unwind; insulate myself from the day’s events and forget all of this was even happening.
That would turn out to be easier said than done.
Even here in this bar, with its cigarette-burnt plastic tabletops and toilets that refuse to flush, Fees Must Fall was very much the topic of discussion. I’d catch a bit of drunken conversation as I navigated my way across different parts of the club. “This is unruly,” one would say. “How is this happening,” another table would chime in. And my personal favourite, the defeatist “but it’s not like this is going to change anything.”
Protests in South Africa happen as routinely as trips to the toilet, but from the get go, this felt decidedly different. A month before Fees Must Fall started, I remember sitting in parliament listening to Stellenbosch’s vice chancellor Wim De Villiers present his response to the Luister documentary. Even then, I remember feeling like we were on the precipice of something seismic. You could sense the students’ anger as De Villiers stated that the university was “taking transformation seriously” and that they were more inclusive than they had been in the past. He later mentioned that the university’s academic staff is 71% white and that 62% of the students are white. The announcement was met with a chorus of jeers and muted laughter.
It’s this kind of obliviousness that was the trip switch for the nationwide protest. Back in March, when Rhodes Must Fall began lobbying for the removal of the statue, they were at pains to state that this was about more than just the statue. Even on the day of the statue’s removal, as the imposing figure of Rhodes was lifted from its tether, Rhodes Must Fall’s leadership promised that this was only the beginning.
Rhodes would fall, so would patriarchy, colonisation and exorbitant university fees.
It doesn’t happen very often, but there are instances when a mirror is held before our country and we see ourselves for what we truly are: broken, ugly and dancing on a precipice.
Whatever disruption may have occurred during the protests is a direct response to years of financial exclusion and a higher education sector that remains only accessible to a privileged few. For the first time in our young democracy, we did away with this whole rainbow nation façade and saw ourselves for what we really are.
Later, I stumbled out of the bar, a haze of alcohol disturbing my movement.
It was just before midnight. The pavements were strewn with drunken couples, men with cigarettes hanging from the lips and dimming streetlights. I didn’t know it at the time, but during the next few weeks history would unfold in front of my eyes. The students would successfully negotiate a zero percent fee increase, end outsourcing in some universities and march to Pretoria’s Union buildings. In those few weeks, the idea that young South Africans are apathetic was smashed to pieces but also, on a personal level, I felt hopeful. I didn’t think Rhodes would fall, but he did. Fees haven’t fallen yet, but they may very well be on their way to falling. And to think, this is only the beginning.
What a time to be alive.
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