Access and narratives of a student struggle

By Polo Moji

Wits academic Polo Moji recounts her expereince of the #FeesMustFall protests and asks us to read beyond the financial aspects of the protests and see also the questions of negotiating power and space for black students in institutions of higher learning.

barricading gate

Day One of the Wits University shutdown, a first-year student enters my office, having received a final warning letter about her low class attendance.

“I was locked out of my university residence,” she explains, “I couldn’t afford it and had to move back home”.

Downstairs, #FeesMustFall speeches begin. When I berate her for not approaching me sooner, the student simply looks at me. She is silent. Songs of struggle resonate from below.

The irony of this scene only hits me later.

This is who these protests are about. About how her financial struggle to stay in university accommodation affects her physical access to this institution. But access is also about why she feels that the system would not listen to her while some of her colleagues feel entitled to approach me about missing class for a European holiday.

So, if we are to take seriously the notion of access to higher education, addressing the financial means of entering the university as an educational space is only the first step. It is not just about having black bodies on campus. Access has to be about the opportunity to approach power and be listened to – how black bodies are inserted into and experience the institutional space.

Silence and the narrative of violence

For most of Day Two the #FeesMustFall plays second fiddle to the bridge collapse on Grayston Drive. It can be mentioned in the same breath as the location for the new Fast and Furious movie, often referred to as “violent student protests at Wits”.

The symbolism of students blocking physical access to the university as a reflection of their lack of access to power within the system is lost. Radio listeners seem more interested in bemoaning the violence of infringing on their right to carry on with business as usual.

Blocking access to a public university is depicted as violent and most consider demanding free education to be a mad request. Of course, the university does an excellent job of broadcasting their rational arguments about the rand-dollar exchange, rising operational costs and decreasing state subsidies to justify the 10.5% fee increase.

Violence and madness are therefore read as total absence of reason. This makes it okay for the university to take the position that lying in front of a boom-gate or barricading a university entrance with your body is worthy of police intervention, not conversation. I am relieved to hear 702’s Xolani Gwala burst this bubble of nonsense during his afternoon show.

As Gwala points out, police are not trained to negotiate but impose order through the very violence they are meant to oppose. Of course the university does not want a student version of the Marikana massacre, it just wants the students to act in a civilised manner and go home.

The powerful symbolism of students putting their bodies in harms ways by peacefully lying in front of cars is easily silenced by the familiar narrative of violent protest.

Wena mamela…I am performing listening:

My first-year student did not feel that she had the right to approach me about her financial problems. Who can blame her, when universities have failed to heed student calls for transformation? Think of #RhodesMustFall, #RhodesSoWhite, #OpenStellenbosch and #TransformWits.

I want to question the very public performances of listening to #FeesMustFall, which we have witnessed since its inception.

First is the photo of the vice-chancellor of WITS, Adam Habib, eating dinner at the feet of student protestors in Senate House on the third night of the protests? What when do we make of this listening posture when we know that private security guards, hired by unknown forces, tried to storm the building during that interaction?

One has to wonder how much attention was paid to students when, on day six of the protests, the Wits University Council agreed to meet students and then failed to show up because of a petty concern over meeting venues. Wasn’t it disingenuous of them to criminalise the behaviour of the gathered audience when it took to the streets to express its frustration?

It’s interesting how these performance of listening create a narrative that portrays the students as being the ones who refuse to engage. So Blade Nzimande’s subsequent announcement that he listened to the protests by agreeing with university managers to a cap fee increases at 6% in 2016, can be read as a performance that gave journalists such as  Mondli Makhanya from City Press the licence to urge students to end their ‘mindless’ protest .

Hijacking the narrative of revolution:

There may be no blueprint for revolution, but the narrative of wanting to change the world and youthful idealism are a powerful combination. We all witnessed how social media played a role in making #FeesMustFall very sexy both locally and internationally.

Revolutionary narrative is not only nostalgic, it is photogenic. Think of all pictures of banners and marching students that nostalgically evoke the Black Consciousness movement and Anti-Vietnam protests of the 1970s.  It also creates icons such the very photogenic ‘Fantastic Four’ of the #FeesMustFall movement, feeding our collective desire to recreate that perfect black and white image of the historical moment.

So while the narrative of youthful revolution was used to create the historical moment of 10, 000 students marching to the Union Buildings, it also became the object of opportunistic attempts to co-opt it into a narrative of political struggle.

The attempts to hijack the narrative of revolution have been relatively crude. Think of Helen Zille and Mmusi Maimane’s disastrous attempts to insert themselves within the #FeesMustFall protests of the Western Cape and the ANC Youth Leagues attempt to brand the “historical moment” by distributing free tee-shirts at the Union Buildings. Even the Economic Freedom Fighters’ demand that the budget speech be postponed in order for parliament to debate the student protest can be read as a hijacking tactic.

Let me end by thinking through the subtle political narrative that has led us to the current impasse. The president’s televised announcement of 0% increase in fees for 2016, without even meeting the protesters at his doorstep not only speaks to the question of performing rather than practicing listening, it renders access as simply a question of the financial means to enter the university space, without addressing the question of student access to power within the institutional space.

To me it seems to be the narrative of a struggle betrayed.

Polo Belina Moji is a lecturer in the Department of French and Francophone Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature (Francophone/Anglophone) from Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris III (2011) and was postdoctoral fellow at University of Pretoria (2013-2014), where she co-convened the Gender Research @UP research forum. Her research interests include Francophone Literary and Cultural Studies, African and Afro-diasporic Literature (in French & English), Feminist Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature. Polo positions her work as a bridge between Francophone and Anglophone research in African and Afro-diasporic literatures.

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