Sandiswe Sondszaba writes an enlightening opinion piece about her experience of the #FeesMustFall movement and what she learnt from Wits being at a standstill as a direct result of protestors.
I first heard of the planned protest against the proposed 10.5% increase in tuition on Monday, October 12th. At the time, I thought that the protest would be a minor event involving hundreds of students and that management would not consider students’ grievances… But, boy was I wrong! I realized that this protest turned out to be something bigger than I had anticipated when I bore witness to Empire Road at a standstill. Being forced to walk to the Jubilee entrance at Wits, I realized that the main entrances to Wits were being blocked as a means of preventing people from entering the campus.
Some of my friends expressed irritation at the tactics used by the protestors as they felt that it infringed upon their right to education. However, one of my more enlightened friends explained that their being inconvenienced was a means of demonstrating that several students would be prevented from getting an education as a result of their being unable to pay for their tuition. Some people began to understand the magnitude of what was being expressed by the protestors. Others, on the other hand, were still confusing being inconvenienced with having their rights violated.
Protestors were determined to bring Wits to a standstill and I believe that they succeeded in doing so. Alarm bells were sounding at 08:45am as lectures were being interrupted as a means of mobilizing more students to join the protests. At 10:15am, my lecture ended abruptly as protestors came in and appealed to our conscience. The majority of my classmates joined the protest as it dawned on us that socio-historical factors play a disproportionately large role in determining who would succeed and who would remain impoverished. It became apparent to us that Wits was on lockdown. Entrances were being opened at various intervals. This meant that our movement in and out of campus was determined by protestors. It really demonstrated how one’s education can be stopped by factors beyond one’s control. If one was unable to get funding for one’s education, one would have to drop out and become another droplet in the sea of unemployed youth in our country. One would then become another number; another anonymous person who “good” (middle-class, employed, educated, tax-paying) citizens would complain about when discussing our country’s socio-economic problems.
My friends and I walked around as we observed the protests progress and gradually gain momentum. We spoke to people who were sitting on the road, blocking vehicles from leaving the campus. Although I was tired, I was proud of my colleagues. They found a way of illustrating how this institution does not operate in a vacuum. Our universities serve as a microcosm of South Africa; this means that the inequalities that exist in our society will manifest themselves, to a larger or smaller extent, within our campuses. The protest gave me and my friends the courage to speak of the systems of privilege that we bear witness to on a daily basis. We began to discuss how people within our social circles live in the bubbles of privilege that prevent them from fully understanding where others are coming from. These bubbles of privilege have often stifled our ability to empathize with those who are struggling to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.
Within my social circle, none of us went to bad schools; we are the products of private schooling and Model C education. This education has informed our worldviews but it has given us the opportunity to observe how privilege often blinds those who possess to others’ suffering. Wits being at a standstill got me to be “woke”. I have a slightly more nuanced understanding of our systems of privilege reproduce themselves as a result of people being, willingly and unwillingly, blind to their existence. I began to understand how the outcome of the protests affected not only my peers, but those within my inner circle – including myself. On Wednesday, October 15th, I may have been inconvenienced by the actions of the protestors, but that inconvenience coincided with the shattering of my blindness to systems of privilege. I stand in support of my peers who are fighting to ensure that the gates to this institution are not closed to those who, despite their financial standing, are deserving of studying at this institution. I have become a proud Witsie who has learnt that the students make the institution.