Students take their struggle to Constitutional Court

Free education is their right, say students who feel the pressures of financial exclusion, and it is high time the court intervenes to make it a reality.

Students pushing for “free, decolonised education” in South Africa are set to petition the Constitutional Court on 12 March as pressure mounts on the government to act on their demands. 

“We will be launching, together with Section27, an urgent application to look into the issue of free and decolonised education in our country. Free education is constitutionalised in our country, it is just not implemented,” said Mpendulo Mfeka, the president of the student representative council (SRC) of the University of the Witwatersrand, from the stairs of the courthouse on Thursday 11 March. 

11 March 2021: A woman outside the Johannesburg Central police station demonstrates against the violence with which the police reacted to the previous day’s student protest. (Photograph by Ihsaan Haffejee)

However, Section27, a public interest law centre advocating for “substantive equality and social justice in South Africa”, has distanced itself from the petition. 

“Section27 signed a petition standing in solidarity with students’ right to protest. We have not been approached for legal representation and are not part of the court application mentioned by [Wits SRC] president,” a statement published on Twitter reads. 

11 March 2021: Students from the University of the Witwatersrand on their way to Constitution Hill, where they handed a memorandum of their demands to the Constitutional Court. (Photograph by James Puttick)

The students submitted a memorandum containing their demands to a Constitutional Court official, who promised to forward it to the relevant authorities. 

Backed by worker unions, students mainly from Wits University first gathered at the Johannesburg Central police station to express their discontent following the previous day’s protests in which the police fired rubber bullets at protesting students, killing Mthokozisi Ntumba. The 35-year-old died as he exited a healthcare facility near Wits’ Braamfontein campus. 

The students had also picketed outside the ANC’s head office, Luthuli House, challenging the ruling party to translate its policies from paper to action. ANC secretary general Ace Magashule briefly addressed them and said the party had engaged the government to act immediately on their demands. Without a trace of irony, Magashule said the ANC and students were engaged in a similar struggle and that the students’ concerns were genuine – despite recent exposés that the government had infiltrated the Fees Must Fall protests to derail them. 

11 March 2021: ANC secretary general Ace Magashule receives a memorandum of demands from the protesting students outside Luthuli House in Johannesburg. (Photograph by Ihsaan Haffejee)

List of demands

The students have tabled several demands as their protest against any financial exclusion intensifies and spreads across South Africa to other universities. Among others, they want a moratorium on fee increases in 2021, the postponement of the start of the new academic year to 30 March, laptops to be distributed to all students, and the removal of the requirement that international students from African countries pay 75% of their fees upfront.

Other demands are that the National Student Financial Aid Scheme pay its beneficiaries by the end of each academic year and every student who has a residence offer be permitted to occupy their allocated space. 

Students in South Africa have been calling for reforms to enable wider access to higher education since well before the national Fees Must Fall protests in 2015.

11 March 2021: Students dance and sing struggle songs outside the entrance to the Constitutional Court while waiting for a representative to meet them. (Photograph by James Puttick)

Cleopatra Shezi, one of the protesters at the police station, said the police would benefit from the students’ struggles because they also don’t have enough money to send their children to university. “The problem is that the system is pushing them [the police] to do what is not right,” she said, referring to the students being shot at with rubber bullets the previous day.  

A joint “call to action” statement issued by the protesters noted that what is happening in universities is a symptom of a bigger problem. “People are struggling for decent housing, for healthcare for all, a living wage and universal basic income, and free, quality decolonised education.”

It added: “The physical and structural violence enacted by the state and universities also disproportionately affects Black women, non-binary, transgender and non-gender-conforming people.”

11 March 2021: Members of the EFF Student Command protest in Braamfontein. They want those with outstanding fees to be allowed to register for the 2021 academic year. (Photograph by James Puttick)

Still in chains

Another protester, Stena Molero, slammed the government for reacting with violence when students raise genuine concern. 

“We are here to remind the whole world, especially South Africans, that we are not yet liberated. What is purported on radio stations and in newspapers and passed in Parliament by this neoliberal capitalist state, which feels that blood is necessary when people are raising their frustrations, needs to stop. We are sick and tired because now and then we are witnessing another Marikana of a certain type,” he said.

11 March 2021: Members of the EFF Student Command threaten a motorist trying to pass during the protest in Braamfontein. (Photograph by James Puttick)

Activist Newton Masuku said the students’ challenges should be seen through a wider lens as part of the ANC government’s efforts to off-load the unfolding economic crisis on the shoulders of the working class.

“It must be understood by the police that to unleash a wave of terror on the students on the streets as they protest [means] they are in actual fact defeating the very battle people wage in the struggle for the increase of their wages,” he said.

Unlike Wednesday’s protest that turned violent as the police thwarted the students’ efforts to demonstrate, officers were restrained on Thursday and simply looked on as the protesters marched and voiced their concerns. 

11 March 2021: Members of the EFF Student Command block the intersection leading to the Nelson Mandela bridge in Braamfontein. (Photograph by James Puttick)

By 10am there wasn’t much activity, with fewer than 50 people camped outside the police station. They later moved to its entrance before being joined by students who sang and blocked roads around the station. 

With a minimal police presence, the two groups eventually marched to Luthuli House and later the Constitutional Court.

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