The university students throughout South Africa demand “the Fees Must Fall.” What started as a peaceful protest, turned into a violent movement. Oppression has a way of doing that, of leaving society on edge. It’s only a matter of time before the oppressed stand up and as Malcolm X stated
“ If you want something, you had better make some noise.”
That is exactly what the students in South Africa did and that noise grew louder; Broken windows, smashed in buildings, looted cafeterias, assaulted security guards, police with shields and bats, terrorized students, rubber bullets, gas, and fires.
The University of the Western Cape has always brought comfort to me. I loved everything about the university, including its history in the Apartheid struggle and its continuous mission at providing education for those who have been historically marginalized from its access. An environment of knowledge tied to issues around social justice felt like a perfect fit. But over the course of the past month, this happy space, my space of peace and learning has been transformed into one of utter chaos. Why were they destroying this peaceful space? I just wanted to learn! I worked hard for the opportunity to learn! I paid international fees higher than everyone else so that I could learn! How easy I made it for the students‘ oppression to become my irritation. What a privileged position I was in. I had attended private schools my whole life, starting with a primary school where 100% of the students went onto high school, then a high school, where 99% of the students went onto universities. On top of that I had the privilege of attending four universities, receiving a Bachelor’s degree, a Masters, and nearly a PhD. At all of the universities, English, my home language, was the medium of instruction. Computer literacy was not a problem, I grew up with one in my home. Sadly, my initial instinct to the protests was irritation. I felt I had a right to a peaceful university experience, not realizing that for many this perceived right was in reality merely a privilege, and tied to every privilege is oppression. Is this what it’s come to, a place where peace is a privilege rather than a right?
For many of the students at UWC, in their communities you are lucky to make it through primary school. Education which the ANC government promised to be a right for all South Africans, has remained a minority privilege. On top of that, if by chance you are one of the few who make it through high school, you will be attending a University where you are five steps behind and the odds are in your favor that you will fail the first year. Now you must read, write, and learn in English. You must be technologically savvy, even though your former schools didn’t have computers. You must keep up with the pressure of assignments and exams, even if there is not a space to quietly study in your overcrowded home. You are expected to concentrate in class, even though you’re hungry and tired from a long morning of travelling. The government and universities have promised not to raise the fees. But the students remain angry. It’s not only the fees which must fall, but the entire system that keeps the majority of the country marginalized while the few reap the privileges. So what does a person in privilege do? How does one navigate through the oppression? How can one support the students, when it’s just as easy to turn a blind eye? The protests have resorted to violence, perhaps the only way to be heard. Can I stand behind the violence, when everything I live by is supposed to speak to peace? If I don’t take a stand where oppression is evident , is that not also an act of violence?