In 1976, the world bore witness to the Soweto uprising and the lives taken during it. People finally took notice of the plight of black South Africans under the law of apartheid. However, the riot was not about the injustice of segregation. It was about the rights of young black South Africans to be educated in a language that they understood. It was about their basic rights being met. They understood that with knowledge comes power. They took action; standing up for what they believed in and many lost their lives for it. 575 people died with 451 of those deaths resulting from police action although the number is often disputed as being too low, according to South African History Online.
On the morning of 16 June 1976, students began a peaceful march to protest the introduction of making Afrikaans the language of instruction. The apartheid government sought to use the Bantu education system to oppress black people by providing education that sought to educate the youth just enough to be able to carry out the jobs that white-owned businesses needed but not enough to educate the youth to progress beyond that.
Although it may seem that with the new government, protests such as the one that happened on 16 June and the days that followed are behind South Africans, the Fees Must Fall movement has shown that even the youth of today face difficulties and are fighting for a right that is as basic as having access to quality education for all. The students behind the Fees Must Fall movement have proven that despite the 23 years of democracy, South Africa is still not at the level many South Africans had hoped it would be.
“The knowledge that we are currently consuming is the kind of knowledge that is there to make us protect and guard the current system,” said Cleo Mutsila, a student at the University of Johannesburg and a member of the UJ branch of PASMA, in a previous Campus TV article. Mutsila therefore highlights a similarity between the reasoning behind the Bantu Education system as well as the Coloured and Indian education systems, and the current education system present in South Africa which effectively provides the youth with the amount of information that will ensure that the current system, which promotes capitalism, is upheld.
“The fight by students of 2015/16 resonates and relates with that of ’76 as it echoes the same cries for transformation, change and access to education and it’s [resilience], bravery and revolutionary prowess of both generations of students is unquestionable,” Philani Benedict Mavuso, a second year LLB student at the University of Johannesburg and a participant in the protests last year, said in response to how the 1976 riots and the Fees Must Fall movement were similar. Mavuso reinforces the idea that the students of today have just as much to fight for as well as a lot in similarity with the students that participated in the 1976 riots.
In South Africa today, many students have the struggle of coming from backgrounds that make it difficult to pay for tuition fees despite achieving good marks in high school and in previous semesters. This often forces them to not pursue further education or drop out due to financial restraints. Another challenge that students have is learning from textbooks and gaining knowledge that is not focused on African people, culture, values and socio-economic issues. Therein lays another goal of the Fees Must Fall movement, namely decolonised education.
The Fees Must Fall Movement seeks for an education system that is not only free for students but also decolonised, according to Refilwe Motimele, a second year journalism student at the University of Johannesburg. Education needs to be a realistic representation of South Africa and its past, one that highlights the true struggles and reconciles those struggles with the struggles of today in a way that is “descriptive and not normative,” Motimele further explains.
Apart from the curriculum needing to be decolonised, Mavuso also notes that the university as a whole needs to be decolonised. “Transformation which is indicative of an African society and which will provide the nest breed of African intellectuals who will push the African Renaissance and provide African solutions to African problems,” Mavuso explains.
Another ideal of the movement is for education to be free from discrimination, prejudice and injustice. A sentiment that Letlhogonolo Maimane, currently studying for his LLB at the University of Johannesburg and is the SRC Chairperson at the Auckland Park Kingsway campus, shares with Mothusi Kamanga who is an active supporter of the movement and part of the protests. “The goal is realising a free education system that is sustainable economically and focuses on the social aspects of a democratic country which promotes [non-racialism] and promotes equality,” said Kamanga. Maimane notes that the movement is “a clarion call to all sectors of our community to stand up against prejudice and injustice.”
Despite the movement’s humble objectives, it has been given a bad reputation among the public and even with fellow students. One of the main reasons for this is the way the movement has been represented. Many mainstream media organisations represented the movement as violent and uncontrolled, reckless and destructive. However, many students who have participated in the protests contend that it was misrepresented. “The protest [was] not what it seemed like in the media,” said Kamanga who went on to say that though he began the journey with hope and delight, in the end he was disgusted by how the students became confused as to what was happening and how the leadership of the movement had lost its focus on the objectives and gave way to external factors.
The Fees Must Fall Movement has had many challenges and appears to be far from achieving its objective but it is a movement that has strength of the determined and zealous students behind it. The legacy of the 1976 riots proves that change has to start somewhere, that even if the goal is not reached immediately it will be reached eventually. “[#FeesMustFall] protest [is] hell but we do it because we believe in what it stands for no matter how much brutality is imposed. We will not bend. We will remain resolute in the fight for Free Quality [Decolonised] Education,” Mavuso affirmed.
Click here to view a full list of the lives lost during the 1976 uprising.