Mother of the Nation

Students march to the Union Buildings in October 2015.

No victory was achieved for the ‪#‎Feesmustfall campaign last Friday. Let’s be clear about that. No fees have fallen. There is nothing to celebrate or get excited about. Fortunately, young people are not stupid nor naive as I discovered for myself.

My intention of going to the march at the Union Buildings was to pledge solidarity as a parent and to observe how the politics played itself out at these marches.

I already suspected that there was more than meets the eye with the [ANC-aligned—Ed.] South African Students Congress (SASCO) being in the leadership of these marches. Then there was the possibility of the ruling ANC’s leadership influencing the whole process to make sure that it is quelled down, and or used for their benefit in the run up to the elections.

I was alone, Smanga couldn’t come with this time. I was almost discouraged, but a friend encouraged me and said: “Diks you must go, this is likely to be the biggest march and most intense march to the Unions buildings since the 1956 Women’s march.”

When I got to Pretoria station, I found three young people who I befriended and went to the march with and spent the day with them. Two of them were women. All third year students. Samantha Sangqu is a law student at Wits University, Keabetswe Monyaki is doing a business degree at the University of Johannesburg, and Kgotso Mashego studies International Relations and Economics at Monash University. From a “social science point of view,” the three served as a good “sample” for my research observation.

Nicholas Rawhani 5

When I saw them they were getting frustrated since they didn’t know directions to the park. They welcomed my support as a parent, saying “Thank you for bringing us here.”

The youngest of them, Samantha, is as short as me, we were both carrying heavy backpacks and both also fell in the near-stampede at the Union Buildings. I immediately took a liking to her. We looked out for each other throughout the march. She would look back constantly as we were marching or running and say “Ma are you there? Ma are you okay?” I just adored her. The boy, Katlego was so gentle and took responsibility for our safety, all three of us. He would run to the front, then come back to make sure that we are close to him. When he realized he was walking too fast leaving a distance between us, he would automatically slow down. I assured him that I’ve become so used to these marches and relatively fit as I’m runner so he didn’t have to worry about me.

When we got to the park, they were asking each other “where is the leadership?” They explained to me that every time they gather they’re first briefed about the goals and intentions for the day so that everyone can be on the same page. Sometimes they are gathered according to their universities, UJ and Wits University in this case, and emphasis is always placed all the time on good behavior and how important it was to make sure that the marches were peaceful. I liked that.

Immediately we got to the park, they observed that some ANC youth were wearing their party colors. There was even a woman selling ANC t-shirts and caps and other party trinkets. The students complained to each other, saying that that was not right because they have been told all the time “no one should push their party political agenda.” They expressed serious discomfort. Samantha stopped a mother because she saw her yellow outfit. She wanted to ask her what she was doing there in an ANC outfit. When the lady turned, my companions realized it was a Kaizer Chiefs colors she was wearing, they let her go. They laughed at this.

The Wits University busses arrived and the march began. Obviously there was no briefing this time, unless maybe it happened in the busses. For a moment I thought the march appeared uncoordinated because we started moving without anyone addressing us. Along the way I was learning the songs. Same old struggle songs but customized to their new struggle. The students added some steps, which added a nice flavor. I was enjoying myself.

There was solidarity expressed by people along the way, ordinary citizens, people in their cars and taxi drivers hooting, workers from buildings—especially in the government offices—others on rooftops with placards bearing #FeesMustFall messages.

When we got to the Union Buildings, we could immediately see that there was a problem, with dark smoke coming from the gardens. These kids got worried. When we got closer there was a group kicking toilets and getting all rowdy. There were comments from the crowd that “those must be the Pretoria students, we never do these kind of things.” The ones I was with said “Ma we have been so disciplined all this time. Even at Luthuli House [the ANC headquarters where Wits and UJ students protested earlier that week-Ed.] we were well behaved. This kind of thing is not what we signed up for.”

We briefly got inside the yard but I advised that we must immediately get out because otherwise when the police start shooting we will be trapped inside. We got out and found the majority of the group we came with, still outside the gates.

My companions related to me how they were surprised when they got to Luthuli House to find a stage erected and ANC leadership ready to address them. I asked them if they intervened and instructed their leadership while they were there that Gwede Mantashe [ANC Secretary General] and Blade Nzimande (Minister of Higher Education] should not address them. They said no it was agreed from the onset before they left that when they get to Luthuli House they don’t want to be addressed by any political party leadership, as that has always been their consistent position. They simply wanted the ANC leaders to receive their memorandum. Of course the way they insisted that Mantashe and Blade get off that stage was really humbling for the ANC leaders.

Students arrive at Luthuli House.
Students arrive at Luthuli House.

Make no mistake, Mcebo Dlamini is a popular and good leader. I just hope and pray that he does not get corrupted, if he’s not already. I say this based on these young people’s response when they saw him in the crowd when we were closer to Union Buildings. They were like “Oh, there’s Mcebo” with much excitement, all three of them. I watched their faces and saw relief when they saw him. That for me is a sign of a leader who is trusted by his followers. He enjoys support and credibility. I hope he does not get to abuse it for selfish interests. His charisma of course can either be a good or bad thing for the student struggle going forward. I’ll leave it there for now.

What I liked with what Mcebo and fellow leaders did was the strategy they implemented to avoid being part of the rowdy crowd and I guess also being associated with the violence. He led the march, obviously dominated by Wits and UJ students to march in the street up the road, away from the chaos. So we did not enter the precinct of the Union Buidlings. This happened almost automatically. One could see that this was a tactical retreat implemented by a thinking leadership. I told these kids that I was highly impressed by what I was observing. Clearly there was panic, this was just after we fell and there was almost pandemonium and I got seriously worried about our safety. I was not sure how the police were going to react to this madness that was unfolding there, and the helicopter hovering in the sky was also adding to the drama. Being led away came as a relief.

As we were led up the street, momentum sustained with song and slogans (“Sizabalazela ilizwe, lokhokho bethu sizabalazela ilizwe”), just to make the marchers feel that they were not isolated from the group that was inside the gardens. When we got to a safe distance up the road, we were kept waiting without anything said. Obviously everyone wondering if President Jacob Zuma had come out yet to receive the students or announce the outcome of the meeting. It was what happened next excited me.

Police Mobilize to stop the Students from Crossing the Bridge
Police Mobilize to stop the Students from Crossing the Bridge

There was a young lady who stood in front, I couldn’t see her, but apparently she was wearing ANC outfit. No one could hear what she was saying because she did not use a loud speaker. One of the girls who was standing close to us said: “But who are these ANC people who keep addressing us? We don’t know these people, who are they?” That for me was a clear indication that these kids will not be fooled by anyone. They are intellectuals, they are educated and unlike us their parents who have allowed ourselves to be fooled for 21 years, they will have none of that, no one will pull wool over these children’s eyes. Let them keep trying if they wish, they will discover the hard way.

The young people also said to me—which is another thing I so desperately wanted to hear—that they have been encouraged all this time during the protest that they must continue studying hard in preparing for exams. Sam said: “Anyone who has not heeded that call and not studied, I feel sorry for them” (By the way, she had expressed her views about the treason charges against the Cape Town students. So when she said she was studying law, I responded: “Oh that explains why you sounded so strongly about those crazy charges.”

Before I left, Samantha said “You know mama by the time we are done with this campaign, Blade Nzimande will not be the Minister of Education. How dare he say ‘Students must fall’?” I just teased her and rubbed it in by saying “Really mama, did he really say that?” She responded with a strong tone, frowning “Yes Ma, he said that.” I smiled, and on that note I thought I had seen enough and happy with what I saw and heard. President Zuma had not yet made his announcement about a zero fee increase for 2016, but I was satisfied. I bid them farewell with hugs of course and got a tight hug from Samantha. I then took a long walk from there, through Arcadia to Hatfield Gautrain station, thinking hard about the future of this country, which I believe will be in goods hands, no doubt about it.

Further Reading

Blind to the matatus

The future of Kenya’s matatus (commuter buses) and their inherent place in the capital Nairobi’s culture and society, is all but absent in the government’s neoliberal vision for urban planning.