Reflections

Fees Must Fall: An Awakening for Sub Saharan Africa?

By Mpuga Rukidi, Uganda:

At the height of the xenophobic attacks against Black non South Africans, President Robert Mugabe, sometime this year, is quoted to have said something to the effect that while the Black people in South Africa were happy to attack their Black brothers from the rest of Africa, they would not dare to touch a White person, even though that person was in form of a statue. A couple of months later, a Black student attacked the statute of Cecil Rhodes, the… That sparked a lot of debate.

For some time now, reports in South Africa have been indicating growing dissatisfaction with a number of things, especially in the economy. But it is the reaction towards the state of higher education in South Africa that I will limit myself to. That South Africa's higher education is the envy of many in Africa is a given. Yet, time and again, discontent among Black academics grows louder by the day. The numbers of Black academics pales in comparison to that of their White counterparts. Interestingly, a number of these Black academics are actually from the rest of Africa.

Now, lest I be accused of being a Mugabe sympathizer, he had a point as far as the scapegoating of Black Africans while there is willful blindness to the real issues that affect South Africans.

Things appear to be changing, though. South African students, perhaps tired of scapegoating anyone else for their trouble, have taken matters into their own hands, literally. They have demanded that tuition fees, unaffordable for many of their peers, must not be increased. Calling it a campaign is a huge understatement given the level of organisation. University students, especially in my Uganda, do not command huge respect in terms of their modus operandi. Oftentimes they go on rampage during demonstrations, destroying private businesses near universities in the process. They have plenty to learn from their South African counterparts. The demonstrations have had a unified message and have had departments responsible for such things as media/communication, morale boosting and logistics.

Finally, the powers that be are beginning to listen. President, in his characteristic word by word speech, sang along to their chorus. Indeed, fees have fallen. One student, the sarcasm clear from his voice, said it is not enough that fees must fall – they must fall to a level that President Zuma can read.

It remains to be seen whether other sections of South African society can borrow a leaf from what the students are doing. It also remains to be seen if students from other African countries can copy this example and be the force they have to be in addressing contemporary issues in their countries. It could be that Sub Saharan Africa need not have an Arab Spring. It could be that our Arab Spring is different. It could be that young people, epitomized by students, are taking their governments to task and asking the tough question. Perhaps with the example of these young people from the south of the continent, a number of evils must fall.

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