The last 3 days at UCT has been characterised by protests by students, the campus being shut down, and beautiful weather. I’m currently sitting outside the Economics building because I was just asked to leave by the protestors, who opened up my office door and disturbed many people at work. I say this in a negative connotation because that’s how I currently feel, but I’m still trying to process what just happened.
I’m not going to pretend that I have a full understanding of what is going on. What I understand about these protests are from conversations that I’ve had with friends or co-workers, things I’ve read in articles or social media, and points mentioned in lecture. My understanding definitely has gaps, but quite frankly, I believe that there isn’t full understanding on any side of the debate.
But, these protests are definitely a big deal to a lot people here. UCT has been shut down because of it, so it’s been hard to do work or turn things in.
I’ve moved back into the Economics Building now. I’m not too sure how much of this I will finish writing today, but I do want to share what do know about these protests.
So there are two important issues (out of many important issues).
- The first surrounds workers’ rights. At UCT, there is a lot of outsourcing, where lower-skilled workers – maids, janitors, gardeners, etc. – are outsourced. They are not officially staff of UCT but are hired through a third-party company. And generally, the third-party companies don’t pay the workers well nor do they receive good benefits. This saves UCT money, and when there is an accident, UCT isn’t liable for that worker. Students point out to a recent death on campus, when UCT didn’t acknowledge it because technically, it wasn’t their worker.
So, one cause is making sure that workers get paid fairly and employers are held accountable.
- The second issue is about the increase in tuition fees all throughout South Africa. Many students see education as a right, and a 10% increase on tuition fees is high. Receiving an education, which would ultimately mean better lives of more than just one life (lots of positive externalities of an educated population), shouldn’t be so unattainable (right, USA?). #feesmustfall
There’s a rhetoric that goes: “Too rich for NSFAS. Too poor for fees. Too black for loans.” That’s powerful.
These are two very important issues that affect the lives of many. So much that these protests caused a #NationalShutdown. Protestors coming in and telling you not to work is making a statement. If the enough people in a country decide not to work, the whole country would fall apart. It is important that you stop working because by working, you are implicitly saying that you are okay with the current conditions.
Workers’ rights and higher education are very noble causes, and I completely agree that there is a level of injustice that is going on here. But, in terms of the protest, I think there are times when the protestors take it too far and there’s just not enough communication. Where is Max Price?
Let me try to tell a narrative of the last few days.
On Monday, which was the first day of the protest, the campus was in a state of confusion. There were blockades to the entrances. It was hard to get onto campus. Rock were strewn on roads so cars couldn’t drive through. In the morning, most of us weren’t quite sure if we still had to attend class or how we were going to turn in our assignments that were due that day. The Jammie Shuttle, which is UCT’s bus system to get to and from key places, wasn’t running, and many students rely on the Jammie to get to class. Eventually, UCT decided to cancel all university activities for the day.
But on Monday, I went to my Development Economics class (because it was before cancellation), and for the beginning of the lecture we talked about the motivation of the protests. Students are angry that there was a proposed 10% increase on student fees, which are already high. But, my lecturer shared that the anger that students have is currently not directed towards the right people. Yes, there is an injustice here because for many people, education in South Africa is unattainable. But, it’s not entirely univeri management’s fault; it is also the government’s, who allocates government funds towards education. The South African government, run by the ANC, spends a lot of money on education in general. That’s a plus, but it spends more money on “basic” education. What about tertiary education, which is very important to a country too? Schools like UCT are public schools, and if they don’t receive enough money from the government, they must pay for services, lecturers, etc. through another means (eg. student tuition). (Sounds like the UC system, eh?)
On Monday, even though much of campus was closed, some protestors disrupted students who were exams. Therefore, UCT sought a court interdict to prevent protestors from interfering with university operations.
Here’s a snapshot of it:
But, the interdict was ignored.
On Tuesday, one of my friends (he’s coloured) was sitting in a car in a university parking lot with one of his friends. The protesters came by and they told/asked them to move. It’s interesting because he recognized some of the protesters. “We learn together, you’re in my class.” Yet, they were unsympathetic towards his and his friends’ efforts to move and were blocking his way. “How could they just pretend that they don’t know me?” This is just an example of how friends could essentially turn against friends. I know that some people are being questioned on why they are not joining the protest. There’s just a lot of peer pressure and guilt involved because students need to show that we are united. ‘ We need you to stand with us,’ type rhetoric.
On Tuesday, another one of my friends sat in on a discussion protesters were supposed to have with management. This friend is Asian from America. He wanted to show that he supported the causes. Yet, he also expressed that as an outsider, he couldn’t really understand the whole story of their demands. What are they planning? Do students believe that education can be free in South Africa (like countries in Europe – Norway and Germany)? There is a need for more communication between all stakeholders. Again I ask, where is Max Price?
On Wednesday, in Cape Town, students marched through Parliament. The protest is definitely picking up steam and energy. I have heard of lots of students who have been arrested by police and been victims of tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets.
This is part of an email that was sent out by UCT’s student government on Wednesday explaining the protests so far. The Students’ Representative Council (SRC) is not directly involved in these protests, but it does encourage students to do what they are comfortable with. Here’s a snapshot of the email:
I was told by one of my friends who was at the protest at the South African Parliament, that students were definitely acting peacefully when they occupied the space. “How could you be more peaceful than sitting on the ground with your hands up?” But, they were met with aggression, and seemingly, people are losing faith in institutions and government. It was a very intense moment, she said.
And let me tell you my story. I am not directly involved in these protests. Maybe I should be because I do believe that these are issues are important to many people here. People should be able to get an education. People should be paid decently. But, maybe I shouldn’t because I could potentially get deported if I’m arrested. But, in this moment of history, what’s more important? I am constantly questioning myself whether I should be doing something more than writing a few words in a blog that no one ever reads.
On Wednesday, I went to work at the DPRU. It was seemingly a normal day except many of my co-workers weren’t here because they were encouraged to work from home. Campus is mostly closed anyway, and if you can work from home, you should.
But, I went to work because I don’t live far from DPRU and all the work that I am doing is saved on the local computer. At around one in the afternoon, the protesters came into the building. I heard the building alarm go off first, telling everyone to evacuate the building. I knew the protestors were asking (demanding?) people to leave. There was a moment where I was about to leave the building, but then I saw a protestor carrying a stick and I didn’t want to be in contact with that. So, I scurried back into my office and closed the door. My co-worker and I decided to wait it out. (In retrospect, I’m not sure if I should have done that.)
But, then a few minutes later, the commotion was getting louder, and they opened my office door and we were told to leave the building. I can’t remember if they were saying something like, “We’re gonna ask you to leave” or “You need to leave” or “Get out”. They all portray different emotions and demands. Or, maybe they didn’t say anything at all and I just knew that’s what they wanted. They were banging on my door and making a lot of noise, so yeah, I decided to pack up my things and leave.
I proceeded to pack up my things, save my files, and shut down my computer. I was shaking, and I was nervous because I was having trouble with my backpack zipper. I just didn’t want to be harassed or accused of going against them because I was taking my sweet time. I was being watched, and every time someone new came into the room, I just nodded to them and repeated, “Yes, I am leaving”.
As I was walking out of the office, there was a stall at the staircase. I couldn’t see what was happening exactly, but people were taking pictures. But, eventually, we were ushered out of the building. I found out later that the protestors were “manhandling” (as one person described it) one of the university’s instructors, urging him to leave the premises. Then, I saw this girl crying, and I overheard her telling her friend that she had lost the work she had spent the last countless hours on because the protestors unplugged her computer and she didn’t get the chance to save. I felt really sorry for her and the lecturer. Just small examples of how a few people could ruin a noble cause.
So, as I left the building, I didn’t know where to go. I worried about some of my friends too. I didn’t want to walk back to my residence because I had heard that some protestors were destroying property in other residences, and they wanted to get into mine. So, I just waited outside for while, which is when I started this post.
But, when I finally managed to get back to the office, I couldn’t get any work done. I tried. I would write a sentence for this and end up procrastinating. Then, I tried working on my trade report, but then I couldn’t focus. I tried going back to the work that I was doing before the protestors came in, but I couldn’t finish that either. I actually really wanted to cry, and I still can’t figure out why. Was it trauma? Did I feel guilty? Was I afraid? I knew that the protestors weren’t physically going to hurt me, so why was I feeling so uncomfortable? Was I obsessively worried? I still can’t figure it out, but I seem to be better today…
Overall, I feel like this is a big moment for South Africa. One of the lecturers here expressed that the protests haven’t been this big since the era of apartheid, and that’s really saying something. Strong negative sentiments towards the government are unravelling, and people are feeling wronged. This is a moment that we need to be paying attention to.
Over and out.
PS. I highly encourage you to read the articles that are being published about these protests. I can only give you a small snapshot of my experiences or the stories I’m hearing, but it is by far not the full story. Here are some to get you started. Click here, here, here, and here. Follow the protests on Twitter: #FeesMustFall | #EndOutsourcing | #NationalShutDown
PPS. There is sooo much more I can say about this topic, so there will probably be a part 2.