It’s been almost 60 years since a group of over 20 000 courageous women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to deliver petitions to then-Prime Minister, JG Strijdom, in protest over pass laws. One of the biggest demonstrations against the apartheid regime was organised by, and led by women.
Today’s young women are carrying the torch that these women first lit, organising and leading students in a fight for access to education.
Students at various universities across the country are protesting against exorbitant fee increases for 2016. Learners from Wits University began the protests against a proposed 10,5% fee increase. Under the banner of the #feesmustfall hashtag, students have shut down campuses, demanding answers from university management.
Nompendulo Mkhatshwa, the incoming Student Representative Council President at Wits University, was one of the women at the forefront of the first student uprising at the university. We shine a spotlight on one of the brave young leaders of the modern struggle for access to education
Q: Why did the students decide that it was time to take their grievances to the street?
The SRC sits on the Council . In all these meetings, the university kept proposing ridiculous rates of increment and the SRC kept denying them. Finally, we were out-voted on our stance against the fee increment. There was no clarity around why the fees ought to go up, and besides that, the engagement was very suppressed and the SRC was marginalised. When the SRC demanded particular documentation, there was either no response from the university, or they said they didn’t have it. So the way the discussions took place was not in good faith.
Q: What do you mean that the discussions where not in good faith?
Articulations by members of Council such as: “If we make the registrations fee reasonable, for example, you are opening up the university to risk in the sense that you will have a lot of people who would be able to access the university, but you are not guaranteed that all of those people will be able to pay their fees throughout the year. These articulations allude to the fact that the university needs to make a profit. Universities are not businesses; they are institutions of higher learning.
Q: People are slowly catching on to the fact that the protests had strong women leading them. How does that feel?
Shaeera Kalla is the out going SRC president who took over Mcebo Dlamini, and I am the incoming president who was elected recently, and I think that this has inspired a lot of women in the institution and women around the country to say: here are women leaders and women can lead. What is inspiring women right now, I guess, is having Shaeera and I at the forefront inspiring women, and reminding people that when you are talking about triple oppression, the third oppression is gender.
Q: What are some of the challenges women face during protests?
Women are coming to the fore, women are questioning why, when I am leading a song, you don’t follow and you don’t back me up. Women are questioning why it is when they speak in their feminine pitch that there isn’t as big an uproar (of support) as when a man speaks in his masculine voice.
There are those men who are progressive and are respectful to women leadership and there are those who are still behind on ideas of (gender) transformation, but we will wait for them patiently as we have been doing for the last couple of years.
Q: There has been some backlash from your white fellow students and members of the public. How are you dealing with that?
It has been disheartening to see that some people don’t care and how far they are willing to go to show this. Some go as far as pulling guns on students, spitting on and threatening to drive over students, calling them k*ffirs. Some people are willing to manhandle students because they have differing political identities and views. However, we continue to lobby people into our struggle.
Q: A number of universities across the country have joined the fight for access to education. Did you expect it to spread so fast and so far?
To be honest with you, we didn’t anticipate this at all, but we are overwhelmed by the manner in which the country has responded. We are not backing down; we are not putting our tools down. All of us will continue from Stellenbosch, UCT, UP and UKZN. It only goes to show how much of a crisis the issue of funding and access to education is, and it is worrisome when our minister says there is no crisis in the country. The youth have been saying that a revolution is coming, and indeed we are at the door of it if not in it already.
Q: As you have said, there is a long road ahead. What keeps you going?
Injustice makes me tick. That’s what keeps me going and that is what keeps us going. The fact that there are those who have and those who don’t have, the fight for equality and access for all keeps me going. Having the core tenets of the Freedom Charter actually lived and not only uttered is what keeps one going. Those who came before us keep us going, and those who will come after us also keep us going.