“We are the future” – Youth Day from the perspective of student leaders (part 2)

26 Jun 2019
“We are the future” – Youth Day from the perspective of student leaders (part 2)

Following our initial feature of UCT’s Youth Day voices, we reached out to the University of the Western Cape’s Sideen Faith Louw,  Thandeka Khoza and Andisiwe Mzingelwa and asked for their views on among other things student protests, civil society and state-student-university relationships.

What role is civil society, and should civil society be playing in the lives of South African youth today?

Sideen: Community-based organisations, non-government organisations, churches unions and the media, all form part of civil society. They act independently, existing outside of the government. They have a positive duty to ensure that the citizen’s rights and freedoms are protected and to hold the government accountable when it does not act in the best interest of society. However, because these organisations rely on donations and funding to fulfil their duties, lack of funding often leaves them at the mercy of the government. This is where there their duties and obligations clash with their need for funding and sustainability.

With regard to civil society and the South African youth, civil society has provided us with a platform to voice our issues and opinions. When looking at it in the context of the ‘Fees Must Fall’ movement (fmf), it helped by spreading the movement’s memorandums across various institutions. However, when it came to reporting to the public, the students noticed the inaccuracy in the information communicated, for example, the fact that innocent students were arrested and shot at, that students could not leave their rooms or the campus to write their exams without being shot at, the fact that the food supplies on campus became limited and that to some extent we were held hostage in our residences and on campus, was not being communicated to the public. All they heard about in the news outlets, was how disruptive the students were.

In my opinion the role of civil society organisations is to ensure that they remain independent from the movement and ensure that that society is looked after and fully informed without any influence.

Andisiwe: First of all, civil society includes non-governmental organisations that represent the interests of the public society. Civil society plays the role of advocating the rights and interests of the public such as health and economic rights. It also plays the role of holding the government accountable for obligations that it has failed to fulfil. Civil society plays the role of promoting public participation in the democracy of South Africa.

Civil society should be playing the role of ensuring that there are employment opportunities for the youth, who are today facing the struggle of unemployment even though some of them hold degrees in certain disciplines.

What role have protests played in pushing change in Higher Education?

Sideen: The ‘Fees Must Fall’ (FMF) movement was a painful illustration of the government not doing enough for the youth. The protest illustrated how politically involved and interested the youth are, exactly how much we care about our future and that we do want to create a better society and life. Unfortunately, like many other protests in South Africa, it turns hard, leading to the destruction of property and placing innocent people in the face of danger. We do all of this to make the government aware of our concerns – concerns that they already know about. When all is said and done, the citizens are the ones who are left to pick up the pieces of trying to make the government aware of concerns.

When looking back at the FMF movement, the protest forced the government to hear the cries of the students. These cries were for immediate change and for equal opportunities to enjoy and share in the benefits of higher education. The protest reinforced the notion that education is not a privilege, but a right. Maybe to some extent it got the Government’s attention, but at what expense? Burnt buildings, destruction of study material, students being shot and traumatised and prolonged jail sentences of leaders. In the end, tuition fees are still increasing, the teaching style has remained the same, students still can not afford the fees, and even if they manage to obtain the tuition fees, the cost of living remains high, there is still a lack of accommodation and the cost of textbooks remains a huge obstacle.

Thandeka: I think that protests have played a big role in changing Higher Education in South Africa. Personally, I would have never imagined that Fees Must Fall would ever happen. However, I understand fully why it happened, and why it had to happen. Since fees must fall, language policies have been revised, fee structures have also been revised and insourcing has happened too. I think that because of this, a lot of people will now be able to attend university without the worry of school fees or burden of paying back student loans. Furthermore, a lot of parents and breadwinners, who work at the universities as cleaners and such, will be in a better position to support their families now. Many burdens have been lifted through such protests.

Andisiwe: Back in June 1976 protests played a significant role in bringing about a positive change in the education system of that time, from changing language policies to access to schools. Protests have been used as a tool by the youth to raise legitimate concerns. It is also said that it’s a tool that has the value of democracy as it allows protestors or people to to talk directly to the government.

Protests have played a significant role in pushing for change in higher education. One example to illustrate this role is the Fees Must Fall movement, which was aimed at making education more affordable and accessible to every student in South Africa. This movement, together with the Financial aid scheme, has succeeded in making education accessible to everyone in South Africa especially for those most deserving students without the means to afford higher education. Protests continue to bring positive changes in the Higher education system.

How do you see the response from Universities, Government and Students?

Sideen: The students demanded free tertiary education, and currently we do not have that. However, that was only one item on the lists of demands from the fmf movement. Various universities have attempted to meet the students halfway, by discontinuing the use of outsourcing and removing the requirement to put your name on your exam and test papers.

In my opinion the movement managed to get the government to acknowledge their needs and demands and made them realise that the youth does care about higher education and how we all yearn for it, so that we can look forward to a brighter future. NSFAS introduced the missing middle grants for the students stuck in the middle: those who do not meet the requirements for NSFAS but also don’t have the financial means to afford tertiary education. They converted previous NSFAS loans to grants and a number of other education opportunities from the corporate sector.

Thandeka: Having attended what was previously an ‘Afrikaner culture’ university, I saw first-hand the backlash with regard to the language policy. It is my opinion that the current language policy, where certain students may receive their education in their mother tongue, which is Afrikaans, is an unfair option. It gives a certain group of people a comparative advantage over those who also struggle with English, but are not Afrikaans speakers.

The laid-back response to this from the Government worries me. And after doing all they could, I think that students now feel deflated and are really just hoping that what they did was not only worth it, but also enough.

Andisiwe: The universities are not responding in the way they should be, as institutions for higher education of students. They let the students fight their own battles without lending any helping hand as if they do not know the struggles of the students within these institutions.

From the perspective of Government, they are responding slowly and not in the way they should be responding to issues that are affecting the future leaders of this country.

From the perspective of the students, their response is called for, but I think they should stick to the peaceful approach in order to receive positive responses from the universities and Government that will bring about positive changes in the higher education.

How has 16 June 1976 affected the current struggle or been a catalyst for current protest and change?

Thandeka: I think that I was taken aback by the recent protests, because 16 June 1976 was so far away, you know? I studied history, so I knew all the facts well; but, I was still shocked that after that we still had to protest, and at that scale. I had heard of isolated protests at TUT and DUT before; but, like in the case of June 16, the Fees Must Fall protests were national – they were collective. Also, like with June 16, I do not think anyone can say he or she expected Fees Must Fall to happen. So, June 16 taught or inspired our generation to use our power to speak out and fight for the education we think we need. It is sad that it had to happen again 40 years after June 16, but 1976 was indeed an inspiration.

Sideen: The effects of apartheid continue to linger and are evident in the racial criminal cases that are present today. The youth of 1976 stood up for something they believed in and instilled a fight with in each of us. Socially and economically people of colour are still struggling, but at the same time we are still fighting. Maybe the way we go about fighting, is incorrect, but violence and destruction seem to be the only way in which we can get the attention of the Government.

The youth of 1976 had a peaceful approach and the police disrupted that. They met the youth with violence instead of understanding their demands, as, to a lesser extent, was the case with the fmf movement.

In addition, because African leaders were not provided with equal opportunities or education during the apartheid era, post-apartheid has left them to grapple with competent leadership skills that are needed for service to citizens, thus perpetuating the regression of citizens.

Is social media changing the way people protest in this country changing?

Thandeka: I wonder if it is?… The armed response to protests makes me think that maybe it isn’t? But I also think of the different types of protests which have existed within the same space and time and I think that it might be the case now too. For example, the Soweto Uprising and the Sharpeville Massacre were different protests, against the same regime. Today we may also still be employing different tactics. Maybe, social media is playing a new role today, which it did not in the past.

Sideen: Yes and no. No – because the citizens, the youth of South Africa, use the same tactics that were used before: violence and destruction. Like I said before, to some extent I understand why, it is the only way to get the governments attention. However, what happens after the protest is done, and your demands are met? For example, the Fees Must Fall movement fought for free tertiary education. They displayed their anger by burning libraries, lecture halls, books, residences. They destroyed the tools they will need should free tertiary education be granted.

Yes, because of the technological advancement, the youth of the present day – myself included – live on social media: it is where we get our updates, news and where we become informed. Social media is used as a tool to aid protests and raise awareness of socio-economic challenges we face. Using social media not only raises awareness but also strengthens the case because it provides a multi-national unified gathering of support. It allows those who cannot participate in the actual protesting because of geographical constraints, to participate via social media. It gives those who cannot physically participate a platform to express themselves.

Andisiwe: The way in which people protest in this country has changed significantly with the advancement of technology. People can now protest on the social media by posting and raising awareness about a particular problem that they are facing. This then implies that a protest action does not only mean taking to the streets and singing and chanting.

The way people protest has also changed in the sense that people are not peaceful and unarmed as Section 17 of the Constitution requires them to be. People are now abandoning the peaceful approach which was used by the Youth of the 1970’s because they are becoming violent and they carry weapons when they protest. This also proves that the way people protest, has changed.

What are the biggest opportunities and setbacks that you see facing South African youth in this moment?

Sideen: This would be unemployment, which is closely related to lack of education, or rather a lack of finances for education. On the one hand one can argue that lack of education is the cause of the high rate of unemployed youths, however on the other hand that argument can be found to be inaccurate when looking at all the unemployed graduates.

On the positive side students are awarded bursaries and have the opportunity to take out student loans, however this comes with conditions, such as the pressure to maintain a certain level of grade point average, without considering external factors. Furthermore, the loans offered to students by universities and banks come with hefty interest rates and the constant pressure of repayment.

Poverty has plagued our youth to the extent that even youths that had/have the opportunity to obtain a higher level of education are unable to find employment. Therefore, they resort to filling positions that are below their qualifications rendering them unable to make repayments on their students’ loans. Thus, youths are being backlisted, which is making it difficult for one to lead a successful life when you are faced with debt for merely trying to better yourself.

Thandeka: I think that lack of access to good education, and then access to jobs, are major issues. A lot of youth do not have access to good education and so many doors remain locked for them. Their negative attitude towards education attainment is further perpetuated by the lack of jobs; lack of job opportunities breeds a ‘well, why am I going to school’ attitude.

Featured image: Thandeka Khoza (left), Andisiwe Mzigelwa (centre) and Sideen Faith Louw (right).