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South African protests: I’m an academic who marched alongside the students – here’s why

South Africa’s university students – and academics – are coming out of the shadows to share their stories and change the system. Nic Bothma/EPA

Standing with students protesting isn’t a matter of solidarity: it is an act of recognition of one’s self. Standing with students during the shutdown of my university was about bearing witness to my life as inextricably connected to the lives of students and families around South Africa. This week has been an education, learning and unlearning my reality as a black, female citizen and a scholar.

As a recent graduate, my aspirational middle class family has made innumerable sacrifices to ensure I can stand today with a PhD. Like the thousands of students marching around the country, each year I cried with my mother, wondering whether or not this would be year I would have to drop out because of inadequate funds. It had happened to my brother. It could happen to me.

Our struggles are not identical, but as I marched with students from the university and nearby Midlands College in Grahamstown, I understood that what I once felt were my personal experiences were intimately connected with those of other students across the country.

There were attempts by university managers, the government and some ordinary South Africans to pretend not to see the crisis. They tried to belittle our experiences of systemic oppression; to harass and shame students into silence. But the class of 2015 has given the country an unforgettable lesson.

I march with students because the cry to rethink our education system can no longer be relegated as a struggle for later. Whether we’re fighting for access or reshaping the way teaching happens in our universities, the time is now.

A new project is required

State institutions, including the higher education sector, have not been adequately re-imagined to deal with the demands of a burgeoning youth population. The burden of the economic crises we face cannot be borne by students and their families alone. A new project is required: one which adequately recognises that the 21st century will be a young one for Africa.

Young people, myself included, need to be part of the conversation. Through these protests we have made it clear that our voices and experiences matter.

As we ran from stun grenades on Monday, my heart shattered. Our black lives, our black minds, our black bodies are still, still made disposable. As we walked back towards the police threatening us, we raised our hands, singing “senzeni na” (“What have we done?”), a struggle song from the apartheid era.

Housekeeping and maintenance staff joined us. We sang “mama we ma, iyeza isocialism” (“Mom, socialism is coming!”). We are a generation that didn’t experience the 1976 student uprisings, but our parents did. We were the generation who were told that everything was under control: that if we integrated, obeyed the rules and didn’t ask questions about who gets to eat and be free in this country, our futures would be brighter. But we realise we will have to make the future we desire.

As my friend and colleague Julie Nxadi says:

It is inhumane to claim that education is the key to success, and keep hiding the keys.

The time for ‘big men’ is past

This is not the time for moral panic. The moral panic ought to be directed to the commodification of education, to the growing inequality of all sectors of the system. I stand with students because many of us recognise that our liberation cannot happen if it is not intersectional and guided by those most affected. This is not the time for big men. It the time for students to be heard, not dictated to.

Lecturers in academic gowns come out in support of protesting students.

Students have shown unwavering resilience in the face of astounding state repression. While facing harassment, belittlement, and attempts at co-option of this movement, they have continued to organise under intense circumstances. It’s disingenuous to expect a perfect blueprint of a revolution in higher education; a strategic ploy to keep students distracted and fearful that the task is too big.

As a student and academic I cannot stand on the sidelines and expect the solutions to come down like manna from heaven. Students have brought into practice new ways of learning about compassion, decolonisation and intersectionality. The demands and many statements students have put out have been clear. It is now time to put our collective wisdom together and make access to education a reality for all in this lifetime.

These young leaders have brought the movement to this point. Their voices matter. Their experiences matter. Standing with them over the course of the week is to stand with myself as a South African committed to a transformed context.

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