A white student’s perspective of #FeesMustFall

LARGELY as a result of widespread student unrest in 2015, the push toward a decolonised syllabus at Wits University came into its stride at the start of the 2016 academic year.

In particular, the students in the Faculty of Humanities were exposed to the ideas, challenges and changes that come with a newly decolonised syllabus.

This syllabus was by no means perfect, nor was it decolonised to the full extent. It was, however, the first time many white students had engaged with African literature, scholars, historians and artists. In addition, the syllabus encouraged the re-examining of historical events from perspectives other than those taught at high school.

Many lectures and tutorials consisted of positive debate and in-depth discussions on issues such as the ripple effects of Africa’s colonisation by European powers in the late 1800s. These effects include the lasting legacy of apartheid, the role of media in perpetuating institutional racism and sexism, white privilege and social movements such as #FeesMustFall and #MeToo.

The campus seemed to be a space where students were urged to participate in discussions and express their own views, opinions and ideas on how best to further these ideas and social movements.It was common to see students from all racial backgrounds and upbringings regularly attending #FeesMustFall demonstrations and engaging in useful debate on social media platforms such as Facebook.

Throughout most of 2016 it seemed as if there was a strong sense of a nationwide student community fighting for the betterment of students as a whole. It felt as if all those involved in student activism in institutions across the country were on a similar page in their quest for the advancement of student rights and access to higher education.

The change started toward the end of 2016 with a call in September for a shutdown of the university and the barricading of entrances.

The issue of race became more noticeable, and many white students began to feel uncomfortable. #FeesMustFall protest speeches included statements such as, “White

people should take their privilege and leave” and “This is not your struggle, therefore you have no place here. From then on, campus became a confusing space for some white students who had supported the student cause, along with its idea of free decolonised education.

This continued in 2017, with tutorial discussions becoming increasingly hostile spaces less open to debate. White students, even those supporting free decolonised education, began to feel as if they were perceived as enemies of the student movement, rather than as allies.

Throughout 2017 and 2018 it became evident that a vocal minority had taken over the space once embracing all supporters of #FeesMustFall.

During the #FeesMustFall protests at the beginning of 2019, though, there was very little evidence of camaraderie among students of different races. Each group seemed to have its own narrative and was unwilling to engage with different opinions.

Many white students still support free decolonised education, but they no longer know where to place themselves within a movement that makes them feel unwelcome: Should they continue to fight for the cause or sit back and do nothing?

One would argue that in order to best further the development of all South Africans, we need to move back to the original inclusive nature of student movements. In doing so, student movements at educational institutions should place emphasis on positive engagement among all who wish to better the society we live in.

If we continue to foster racial divisions, it will serve only to incite hatred among the citizens of South Africa.

Featured image: Aston Silver, student journalist at Wits Vuvuzela. Photo:Dinesh Balliah 

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