The ongoing Fees Must Fall protests have taken unique shapes and forms at universities across the country. And at the University of the Free State (UFS) the movement here is complex and multi-faceted. Its direction keeps on changing due to various dynamics involved. In this piece, Linda Fekisi reflects on what she has witnessed in the past week.

At first glance, the ongoing protests seem like any other. Those protesting sing, chant and dance along to liberation songs with lyrics containing the names of struggle heroes such as Oliver Tambo and Solomon Mahlangu. The atmosphere is euphoric and heated.

One also gets to see the different personalities first hand: Those who begin the songs and the chants, the front runners, the observers and those who take cover when photos or videos are taken.

Who pulls the strings?

img_1599One of the main differences between the protests happening now and those last year are the splinters between student leaders. Last Tuesday the SRC released a statement pulling out of the protests and this is when the cracks began to show. The current SRC President, Lindokuhle Ntuli, was termed a ‘traitor’ and a ‘sell out’, while other activists came out in full support of Ntuli.

Some students left campus and rallied support from neighbouring institutions such as Motheo FET College and the Central University of Technology (CUT). And the formation of the Free Education Movement (FEM) brought hope for student leadership.

FEM successfully led students on a peaceful march to the government offices without any casualties or arrests. Like the SRC had before, they too are faced with hostility by some students who think that they hold too much power. FEM made this known at a mass meeting on Monday, 26 September. While FEM is trying hard to unify students different ideologies emerge during submissions, due to different political affiliations, and this adds to the hostility.

Women pushed out and silenced

img_0634The movement at the UFS has a very strong patriarchal hold. While there are many female students present at these mass gatherings, not many are at the forefront.

You don’t see them in the ‘breakaway’ discussion groups- males hold caucuses once disagreements erupt. Feminist activists on campus who would normally be seen advocating for the rights of students are absent, and silent.

Another dynamic is the fear of post-protest victimisation. Despite the presence of members of management during the protest, some students feel uneasy about how management will handle the fee increment on campus, not to mention possible arrests and interdicts.

Cracking under pressure

Although submissions are carefully considered and thought provoking, the nature of the discussions during the mass meetings can be hostile to ideas which are different from the majority of those present and speakers often use ‘bully’ tactics to try and get their points across.

In reflecting on what I have seen, it is only fair to also reflect on what I haven’t seen. I haven’t witnessed racial tensions that have come to define UFS. While songs with offensive and derogatory lyrics make their way in the crowd, they are not welcomed by the majority.

At the time of publication, students on the Bloemfontein campus were engaged in talks on the response from university management regarding their recent memorandum. But at this point, it’s difficult to predict which route the movement is going to follow in attaining free education. Considering the absence of one, coherent voice, will the student movement be able to garner the necessary support to push for their demands, or will they crack under the pressure of egos and indecision?

For live updates on #Fees2017 at the UFS follow @TheJournalistSA

Images courtesy of Leeroy Seeletse.