This week in South Africa there are demonstrations on the majority of university campuses. It was sparked at the end of last week by a demonstration at Wits University with students protesting at 10.5% hike in fees. The #Feesmustfall campaign spread quickly to UCT, Rhodes, Stellenbosch and UKZN and others. Most major university now have action of some sort.
On Wednesday many students gathered outside parliament.
As ever, in South Africa, peaceful protests rarely end that way. There has been some vandalism on the part of students, but the strength of the police action appears to have been excessive.
And I sit thousands of miles away from all of this commotion following the story on social media. It has been interesting watching my own response. From my initial horror at the student demonstrations through to getting better informed about the financial stakes – separating out my own anxieties from the cause of the students.
The fact of the matter is that what I think of as ‘middle class’ in South Africa is not ‘middle’ at all. I saw the figure in one of the articles I read that 4% of South Africans earn more than R500 000 (for a quick and dirty comparison that is a bit than US$ 50 000). Tuition fees for a year of university is around R40 000 (that’s just tuition) – and all universities are subsidised by government.
I am not an activist by any means. I don’t like mass political action, it makes me profoundly uncomfortable. But over these days I find myself appreciating the need for action. When I look at the figures I am horrified at how tough life actually is for most South Africans. I am also glad that we have a generation who are willing to stand up to those in authority and to ask for change.
I fear that there will be much ugliness to come. The problem with having a group which is not apathetic is that change will come. I know I’m not going to like all of it. I know that there will be violence of some sort along the way and I find that deeply disturbing.
Watching history unfolding is not pleasant. I feel the pain of those students who just want to be allowed to write their exams in peace. I fear the lack of control. But I think this may just be one of those big moments in South Africa’s history. And I respect those who are taking a stand.