From campus protesters to labour organisers

Former #FeesMustFall student activists take on the fight for the ‘total liberation of black workers’. 

Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto came alive on Workers’ Day as a delegation of 300 workers employed in and around Braamfontein gathered to launch the Workers Socialist Union of South Africa (Susaw).  

Susaw, formed by former Wits University student leaders, launched its constitution and announced its national executive committee (NEC) that was elected by an interim structure. Ten additional members were co-opted into the NEC at the launch and are yet to be officially announced.  

Wits 2018 SRC president, Orediretse Masebe*, the second deputy general secretary, told the gathering that “The idea for this union started from the South Point protest of 2018.” This, he told Wits Vuvuzela, was when 86 workers who were being outsourced by the Braamfontein residence were told that they were being retrenched with immediate effect. He was part of a group of student activists who staged a series of protest actions which and eventually won the permanent and secure employment of all 86 workers.  

“We understood that workers issues are our issues as well,” said general secretary of the union, who was the transformation officer in the 2018 Wits SRC, Mmeli Gebashe. “Because of the relationship we formed with workers at Wits and around Braamfontein, they continue to refer to us with their labour related matters.” 

Masebe told the delegation of workers that during the South Point protests, the private security guards that were hired to keep them out, eventually started confiding in them about their own issues with their employer. “This is where our passion for fighting for the labour rights of our parents was born,” he said. 

According to Gebashe, formalising their relationship with workers gives them the capacity to organise representation and education for workers, with the view to protect their right to work in a cut-throat labour economy. He added that Morris Isaacson High School was the perfect location for the birth of an organisation that had its roots in student activism.  

A former chairperson of the Black Consciousness Movement United, Thami Hukwe, set the tone for the day’s proceedings in his address, when he said the establishment of Susaw was “the response to the call for a total liberation of black workers”. 

The delegation was given the opportunity to engage with the union’s interim constitution, give comments, contributions and ask questions. The constitution outlines the operations and reach of the union.  

Newly elected president of Susaw, Phumla Nondoda. Photo: Morongoa Masebe

Susaw president Phumla Nondoda, who works at a South Point residence in Braamfontein, said that the protests of 2018 saved her job and that of many others, and Susaw is committed to making sure that it stays true to the demands of workers. 

Bonginkosi Khanyile, also a former #FeesMustFall activist, attended the launch as a guest speaker, and told the workers that a workers’ union that considers the lived experiences of the worker is long overdue. “If you start sitting at the table with other leaders, and forget the mandate of workers’ rights, we will shun you,” he said and emphasised that the work of representing workers is not about personalities or power politics, because it affects the real lives of workers and their families.

* Related to the reporter

FEATURED IMAGE: A copy of the Susaw constitution. Photo: Morongoa Masebe

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Young Builders move to break new ground at Wits

The youth wing of Mmusi Maimane’s Build One South Africa has a vision to do away with fees.  

A new political society has been registered at Wits, with its sights set on changing the dynamic of the university’s current representation of young people in decision making processes. 

The Young Builders Movement (YBM), launched at the university on April 13, hopes to fill the gaps that it says other political societies on campus have fallen short of.  Wits YBM chairperson Nikilitha Mxinwa says that these gaps include the choices that young South Africans have had in terms of representation – that have ultimately not allowed for their own voices to be heard. 

Mxinwa says that decisions which affect the youth are made by those who do not understand or are not affected by the issues. These decisions pertain to issues of financial exclusion, fees and accommodation. YBM argues that this is because these decisions come from a “top-down” approach. He describes the society as one which takes a bottom-up approach. “Young leaders on the ground” make decisions about issues that affect them, not “from the top”, he says.

YBM national leader and Wits alumnus Henry Masuku and Mxinwa describe the society as one which can prepare students for life outside of university.  

In an interview with Wits Vuvuzela, Masuku said that it does so by bringing in experts to teach its members entrepreneurial, business and leadership skills. This is aimed at “alleviating graduate unemployment”.  

Like most political societies on campus, Masuku says Bosa aims to address the unsolved legacy of #FeesMustFall.  

Wits YBM chairperson Nikilitha Mxinwa engages with students across the Library Lawns on April 19, 2023. Photo: Seth Thorne

These are systemic issues of higher education that have been widely debated at Wits over many years. Yet the YBM claims that their solutions for these issues are the ones which are “practical”. Masuku only discussed one with Wits Vuvuzela – which is a plan to implement free education, by introducing a system which taxes 1% of graduate’s monthly income once they have found employment.  

The YBM is the youth wing of independent political party Build One South Africa (Bosa), formed by former DA leader Mmusi Maimane. It is inviting South African students, job seekers, and employed professionals between the ages of 18 and 35 to sign-up in person or online. 

In discussions with various students engaging with the YBM on campus, many cited Maimane for their interest. First-year actuarial science student Patrick Nemasea said he prefers “Mmusi’s vision of South Africa [as compared to other political leaders]”, as it builds a country “that stays true to values”. 

FEATURED IMAGE:

YBM national leader Henry Masuku sells their vision to Wits students near the Matrix on April 19, 2023. Photo: Seth Thorne

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Q&A with Gundo Mmbi

Gundo Mmbi, 27-years-old, is the principal at SPARK Soweto. Photo: Provided

Gundo Mmbi is a Wits BEd graduate and former Wits Education School Council transformation officer. She is a human rights activist and a proud member of the LGBTQIA+ community. She played an active role in the #FeesMustFall movement. In 2017, she became an assistant principal at SPARK Turffontein and is currently the founding principal of SPARK Soweto.

How did a young woman from Limpopo find herself at Wits?
I was told that the child of a cashier will never make it to one of the country’s most distinguished universities. I wanted to break barriers by securing a bursary. I studied hard to achieve acceptance to Wits University and secured a bursary from the housing department to study. That’s how my Wits story began!

You majored in mathematics and English. What factors motivated you to study BEd?
Growing up, I have always been curious about who was setting my exam papers and why the quality of the questions was the way it was. The standard of mathematics in South Africa has been lowered for scholars. Each year, I have watched as the pass mark declines, gradually dropping from 50% to 30%. I don’t think it is the teachers or the scholars, but our country’s curriculum leaders and education officials who may lack faith in our abilities.

Have you always been active in student politics and issues of social justice?
Wits is a world on its own, and you learn a lot there about who you are and what type of person you would like to be. Student politics exposed me to a world of leadership and holding people accountable for what they Wits is a world on its own, and you learn a lot there about who you are and what type of person you would like to be. Student politics exposed me to a world of leadership and holding people accountable for what they are responsible for. I was a shy village girl when I got to Wits until I stood up against my English lecturer when he questioned my gender identity: the activist in me was born.

How did your experiences at Wits lead you to where you are now?
A degree from Wits University enables you to proudly embrace your diversity while being proud of your unique individualism. Wits taught me it is okay to come from Limpopo and be raised by a single mother while fighting for free education.

At 27 you are the principal at SPARK Soweto. To what do you owe your success?
I owe my success to the freedom that was fought for by the people of South Africa. Knowing that their fight for my freedom opened doors to higher learning, I was able to go after what I want with no restrictions or prejudice. I owe it to all the teachers that shaped my life, who ensured that I became the best version of myself and not forgetting “my mother and father” (the National Student Financial Aid Scheme) for the financial support when I needed it.

What led to the move from Turffontein to Soweto?
I applied to be a tutor at SPARK Maboneng in 2015 while completing my degree in education. I then became a maths teacher at SPARK Maboneng and taught for two years. An opportunity to grow into school leadership was offered, and I applied for it. I became an assistant principal at SPARK Turffontein and now founding principal of SPARK Soweto. SPARK Schools has 21 schools across South Africa, and I am part of a group of young people who are changing the face of education.

FEATURED IMAGE: Gundo Mmbi, 27-years-old, is the principal at SPARK Soweto. Photo: Provided

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‘I would make the same decision again’

WITS University vice-chancellor Prof Adam Habib faced down criticism of how he had handled the #FeesMustFall protests, and other “misrepresentations” in his latest book, Rebels and Rage, at its launch in Hyde Park on Wednesday, March 13.

A group of about 20 people who identified themselves as students took Habib to task over his decision to call police onto campus during the 2016 #FMF protests.

Prof Habib defended his decision, saying, he had called police onto campus because of the responsibility he had to ensure the safety and security of the entire Wits community, and that 77% of students who had taken part in an SMS poll conducted by the university, had indicated that they wanted to complete the academic year.

“If I was faced with the same circumstances and the same conditions, I would make the same decision again as it was the progressive and right decision under those circumstances,” he told the Exclusive Books audience.

His critics were having none of his explanations, and were robust in their engagement. “You are a skilful liar … you are a very, very violent man,” said one, much to the displeasure of the audience that heckled him.
The young man was not fazed, and challenged the VC to host an assembly at the university to allow students to engage with him about the book. Afterwards, he told Wits Vuvuzela that he was a student at Wits, but wouldn’t give his name.

Former Wits Student Representative Council (SRC) member and All Residence Council chairperson, Willie Muhlarhi, said that he had attended the launch to call Prof Habib to account for “misrepresenting the role of student leadership” during #FMF.

In the book, Prof Habib is critical of student leaders and academics he characterised as being “far-left”. He accuses student leaders of being often absent from efforts to provide solutions. As an example, he says the most progressive funding model that was brought to the university was created by a group of accounting students, who were not part of student leadership.

This is inaccurate, according to Muhlarhi, who is studying towards a masters in finance. “Habib fails to mention that there were SRC and student committee members involved in creating the model submitted by the accounting students, which shows a lack of research on his part.”

Students are not the only critics of Habib’s book. Former Wits anthropology lecturer, Dr Kelly Gillespie, who is named in the book as being one of the far-left academics, told Wits Vuvuzela that Prof Habib had misrepresented her and progressive lecturers’ actions and motives during the protests.

“It’s incredibly irresponsible for him to argue [progressive lecturers] were proponents of, or encouraging violence when 99% of the time we were there, we were trying to reduce violence and calm things down on both sides. He is creating extremely partial accounts that are very dangerous, and for some it feels he’s creating conditions for [academics] to be watched by state security,” Gillespie said.

Prof Habib has disputed the claims that he misrepresented #FMF events. “I wanted to correct the narrative of Fees Must Fall being pushed by politicians that the vice-chancellors are these neoliberals while the student activists are progressives who are the only ones committed to the goal of free education. That simply isn’t true,” he told Wits Vuvuzela.

Wits will host an event for Rebels and Rage, Prof Habib told the audience at the book launch, but details will be announced later.

FEATURED PHOTO: Wits vice-chancellor Prof Adam Habib responded to criticisms that he had misrepresented events and prominent figures during the #FeesMustFall protests at the launch of his book, Rebels and Rage hosted in Hyde Park.
Photo: Naledi Mashishi

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