In the past couple of months I have grappled, perhaps selfishly, with the fees must fall movement. I have listened, I have watched and I have tried to engage with various ideas around the movement,in an attempt to locate myself within the movement in the hope that figuring out exactly where I stand would give me more clarity on what it is I should be doing about/for/or even against the movement.
My name is Nomatter Ndebele and I am both an example of what it means to be the daughter of a Migrant domestic worker, who would never have been able to pay my university fees. I am also an example of a girl who has lived and still lives within a close proximity to privilege.
I am child number three of a family who has provided me with incredible support and put me in a position to access opportunities that I may never have even dreamed if, if my Grandmother was left to raise me by herself.
My proximity to privilege meant that I was fortunate enough to have my university fees paid in full every year, from undergrad right through to postgrad. It meant that I never had to worry about getting the textbooks I needed, it meant that I never had to worry about not being able to print an assignment, I never had to worry about finding a computer to do research or type up/submit my assignments, I was able to join whatever clubs and societies I was interested in. I can say that socially and financially my experience of university was always uplifting and constructive. Despite this however, I was not immune to the harsher and more destructive experiences from other students.
I had friends who were dependent on NSFAS to get them through their degree’s. But the thing about NFSAS is that although it is supposed to be an empowering process that provides opportunity, people will tell you that getting through that process is one of the most frustrating and demoralizing things you will ever have to go through. It is standing in cue’s for hours, when you need to be in class, it is the loss of paperwork that you submitted weeks ago, it is the continuous follow up’s about your application, it is the uncertainty of being accepted or not. And where you are not, it is a new frustrating process of trying again.
For successful candidates, one then has to go through the process of finding accommodation. For foreign students this could be argued to be the most harrowing time to be at University. Your bursary has not been finalized, you are in another country and you may not have anyone else that you can stay with while you wait the process out. You are forced to sleep in the library/ in an empty classroom. Those who depend on stipends are faced with even further uncertainty every month, am I getting a stipend this month? What will I eat when I run out food? Where I will I go if I cannot pay my rent?
And while I was fine, my experience juxtaposed with the realities that my friends had to face made me realise just how hard it is, to get your hands on a degree. And all this before you even sit down in class or start working on your first assignment. But still, with very little choices students struggle on.
The harshest reality of all though, which I have experience of is leaving university with a degree and then having no plan. It worries me that people think that leaving university with a degree almost immediately bumps you up into a different class. There is this belief that once you have your degree- you’ve made it out.
But guess what? At that point you have only made it out of solitary confinement. Now you have to resocialize yourself back into the poverty you had managed to “actively fight” for the duration of the degree. You are right back where you started.
My proximity to privilege and the fact that I am now considered to be middle class has not changed the realities that I lived before I got my degree. My Grandmother is still a migrant domestic worker, she (now we) still have to send money home, we have to step in for family members who need to be bailed out in whatever crises. When death comes around, we’ve got to step up for people who have no funeral plans and now have to be buried in Zimbabwe.
And it is these two experiences that I live simultaneously that leave me questioning my own legitimacy as part of this movement. I agree that free education is a possibility and must be made available. But I do not believe that it is something that we can achieve tomorrow. I think that the call for this action needs to be implemented through policies, there needs to be a plan. If we are redirecting funds, where will the money come from, how will we ensure that we have a steady flow of money to keep free education as reality, because we cannot in 5 years then go back and say – Sorry we can’t do it anymore.
And while I think these are legitimate concerns, I am overcome by guilt even by just articulating them. I have a degree, I have a job, and my contributions to black tax are significantly lower than other students, so how do I sit here and say “we can’t do it”. If I had not had my family to support me through university- I probably also would be making the demand for free education right now.
Then I am even further conflicted about the methods of protest. One the one hand, I (think) I understand why students would shut down a university- if they cannot gain access to it without such struggle then why does it exist? But then I start to think about the end goal- if the question is one of access, if we shut down the university “they” win right? If it was never designed to be a space for poor black students, and then we decide to stay away- well, it’s served its purposes hasn’t it? Surely our biggest priority should be to occupy and claim the space.
And then there’s the stone throwing and the burning. My first instinct is to condem that behaviour. In my mind, problems are solved through engagement and a man holding a gun cannot engage a student throwing a rock at them. How?
And then another thought, maybe this is all we have. Our Freedom was born out of violence, and no doubt It was terrible terrible time in our history, but it was also one of the catalysts of change right? So. It works, in a way.
I have many questions and I find myself anxious because I know that there isn’t one clear cut answer for any of them. If fees fall tomorrow, there will be more questions, if they don’t fall, there will be even more questions.
Just yesterday I sat in a political discussion with an Academic who claimed that the movement was self-destructing, that there was no legitimate organization from the students ( apparently the decisions to march into Braamfontein are ad hoc), apparently this all populism and the students do it because they know that there are camera’s and the world is watching.
Before this conversation, I was sympathetic to the students but I had my criticisms. But when I heard this man say these things, I felt an internal rage. As though, this was MY movement being belittled. And when it was time to engage four young hands shot into the air, my colleagues and I were ready to engage- we had come backs:
“You can’t compare FMF to the TAC movement- it was a different time, a different and clearer enemy”
“You really think this for the Camera’s? You think students take their bodies to places where they will get shot because they know a camera will be there?”
“You think that when those students come down De Korte street, singing in unison, walking in clear formation- that is disorganized. That is adhoc? Just kind of happened, along the way? ”
The only thing I could not respond to was the claim that the movement was self- destructing. Because here I am, doing the exact same thing. I pulling myself apart and then putting myself together again, I am taking a side and then moving back to the other, I am literally falling apart at the seams, trying to figure this all out- and I have a degree, I don’t have to worry about the 2016 academic year.
Last night, I bumped into Vuyani Pambo and I asked him how things were going- and without skipping a beat, he looked at me and said “fees will fall this year”, but when he said that I was not inspired, in fact I was afraid- what certainty does he have that the rest of us don’t? I know faith, because I have carried it all my life, but that wasn’t faith. That was an unwavering almost dangerous certainty.
Do I wish I had it?
I don’t know.
I don’t know anything really, only that sometimes I am also a fallist despite my proximity to privilege