How black student activists in South Africa turned #FeesMustFall into #FeesHaveFallen

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As black citizens take to the streets all over the U.S. to rally against the ongoing scourge of police brutality and the wholesale exoneration of the officers who execute unarmed black men, women and children every day, clashes between protesters and the police are beginning to look very similar to the demonstrations we saw all over the nation some 50 years ago.

Unfortunately, this  struggle is not central only to the United States.

While many people believed that racial inequality was fixed in South Africa in 1994 after Nelson Mandela was elected and apartheid came to an end, the recent #FeesMustFall protest is providing scenes that are very reminiscent of the brutality black bodies were subjected to there just a few short decades ago.

In the last two weeks, students from universities all over South Africa have been clashing with school officials over proposed tuition increases. At UCT, (University of Cape Town) police donned in riot gear have been assaulting, arresting and terrorizing these kids and young adults with harsh violence.

The protests at UCT, which has a 49 percent black South-African enrollment, has resulted in many of the arrests and brutality being aimed squarely at the black students. Things got so bad that the black protesters had to ask their fellow white classmates to literally shield them with their white privilege, resulting in one of the most tragic and beautiful scenes we may see for the entire year.

As black students continue to have their lives and safety threatened by local police and the army, it’s beautiful to see allies being willing and able to come to their classmates’ rescue — yet it’s utterly disturbing that the violence these justice officers were willing to levy on people of color, they hesitated to do to white people. It continues the narrative that blackness of any age is a threat to national safety, while whiteness is granted the benefit of the doubt by being seen as innocent and deeply nuanced.

So how the hell did we get here? How does a student-led rejection of tuition hikes lead to stun grenades being tossed into a crowd of unarmed university kids? To grasp what is happening today, it’s crucial to understand the racial and economic history of South Africa.

In 1948, when the National Party was elected into office after running a campaign of mass hysteria and xenophobia, apartheid was officially introduced into South Africa with laws that made it illegal to have sex with and/or marry someone of another race, and which made it legal to segregate businesses, schools and restaurants (like Jim Crow in the South) and also forced people to live in specific areas designated for people of their own race.

This system created a massive inequality between black and white families, causing a huge spike in the racial wealth gap. At one point, the median white family in South Africa was out-earning their black counterparts by as much as 15 times. This created a massive system of inequality whose ripples are still being felt today, despite the end of apartheid.

So when higher education minister Blade Nzimande proposed tuition hikes across the country that would spike by as much as 11.5 percent at some institutions, the poor black students simply didn’t have any room to bend or negotiate. They would be the ones who would feel the fee hikes more than their white counterparts, who still benefit from generations of inherited wealth, and seeing as most students in South Africa are black, this hike would make education less of a reality for a group of people who are still largely marginalized and overlooked in the education and employment systems in their nation.

What’s even more disappointing is the fact that Nzimande is dead set on treating these kids, who just desperately want a higher education to ensure a better shot at life, like violent criminals.

Now that the proposed tuition hike has been ruled out by South African president Jacob Zuma, meaning #FeesHaveFallen, not only was it awesome to see black and white people protest side by side, but it was also great to see them celebrate side by side on an issue that largely affected all students.

It’s also important to remember what this struggle was all about. This was not an issue about thugs and criminals – it was about black children being priced out of affording the ability to study. This was about children trying to chase their dreams by removing an unfair and unnecessary hindrance. This was about peaceful protests being met with harsh, state-sponsored violence — much like what occurs all over the United States. But more than anything else, this was about improving the present to ensure that future generations don’t have to deal with the same BS.

But you have not seen the last of the #FeesMustFall activists, as they already have their eyes set on a new goal: reducing the already exorbitant school fees to make education more accessible to all people.