A movement for equality

What started as a student protest against a hike in tuition fees at South Africa’s Wits University, grew into a nationwide movement demanding social transformation.

When the South African universities were founded, they were primarily meant for white upper- and middle-class men. Today, 25 years after Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black president, inequality is still far from erased in South Africa’s educational system. And when in October 2015 a 10,5 per cent increase of tuition fees was announced at Witwatersrand (Wits) University in Johannesburg, something that would mostly hurt black students, protests erupted.

‘It was clear that universities saw poor students only as a liability and really did not care about the accessibility and financial burden,’ says Shaeera Kalla, who at the time was president of the Student’s representative council at Wits and helped initiate the protests. ‘Some students had to choose between meals and paying their outstanding fees. This is not a choice anyone should have to make.’

As the movement, dubbed #FeesMustFall, spread to campuses across the country, it rapidly grew in scope to tackle not just inequality at universities, but many social issues plaguing South African society. The students were joined by likeminded university staff and by people who worked at universities, such as cleaners and security personnel, whose work contracts were outsourced, costing them salary and health insurance. The protests were met with increasing violence by police and security forces. As can be seen in the documentary Everything Must Fall, Shaeera Kalla was shot in the back by thirteen rubber bullets during a peaceful demonstration in 2016.

Although the movement could celebrate some victories – for example when president Zuma announced that the increase in fees for 2017 would be 0 per cent – its legacy is still not completed. In the words of Shaeera Kalla, who will represent #FeesMustFall at the Movies that Matter Festival 2019: ‘Students will ultimately take this where it needs to be. I have faith that we will achieve our demand for free, decolonized education. But not without a fight.’