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Saturday 24 October 2015, 5am; today – different to yesterday – was not the unison shout of ‘Amandla, Awethu’ that woke me up. Students nationally have been protesting against the rise of student fees under a hashtag #feesmustfall for the last week.

I am currently a Phd student at the University of Stellenbosch. I also help to coordinate and present an Ethics module while fulfilling an administrative position at MGD (Maties Community Service) which is part of the Division of Social Impact. Consequently, I am both student and staff.

This morning I woke up with two different emotions; 1) an overwhelming feeling of being part of history. A sense of joy and contentment, and 2) a feeling of sadness, knowing that too many students and others do not grasp what happened.

My work regarding the Ethics module and the work that is done by MGD are linked to developing graduate attributes beyond academic proficiencies. These attributes encompasses qualities such as critical thinking and active citizenship. This past week, I witnessed a generation of students that engaged with various stakeholders in a critical manner, and who took a stance against injustice.

However, I also witnessed the other side of the coin. I became deeply concerned about the lack of critical thinking and active citizenship among those who have already graduated and are now part of the workforce. During a conversation about the #feesmustfall, someone commented that these students are criminals and law breakers and that they should be taken to jail. Of course I got a bit emotional because this was an educated person. But then again, formal education can only take you so far. You must be willing to critically think and engage with the issues at hand, issues at your doorstep. Unfortunately too many people are not willing…

Ironically, I read and interesting passage in the Bible this morning.

“Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, ‘this is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.’ (John 5:8-10 NIV)

A few verses back it was mentioned that this man was unable to walk for 38 years where he sat begging in that same area. There was no way that the Jews did not know that he had just been healed. Yet they chose to see a criminal, a man who disobeyed the law by carrying his mat on the Sabbath instead of recognizing the miracle that just took place.

There was a law above the law of the time, and that was the law of justice. Now, I am not advocating lawlessness: not at all. I am proud to say that I attended most of the marches and even the protesting activities where some students went into buildings to disrupt other students who were studying. The disruptions I witnessed were usually no longer than 15min, although I do realize that there were a few disruptions that were more intense. Nevertheless, for the most part university activities were largely uninterrupted. The leadership of the movement set out to keep it a violent-free protest. They have to be commended for sticking to their word. High discipline and high moral was the order of the day and students cleaned up after every mass gathering. Here and there one or two students would get a bit rowdy – which is to be expected in a gathering of so many people – but leadership stepped in immediately. It is unfortunate that the one or two minor incidents were captures by media. I am saddened when in this day and age, we as educated people and Christians choose not to engage with the issues of the day; when we choose to see a single story of what was happening just like the Jews did.

It is however, unfortunate that not all the protest action across the nation was non-violent, but I can only speak of the protest pertaining to Stellenbosch University, because I was there and I testify to what I saw and experienced. I know the national student protest intent was to be non-violent.

Sometimes a violent space can be provoked by unnecessary paranoia, by creating an atmosphere of fear through excessive police presence and police sirens when nothing is happening or has happened. Such spaces provoke anger because they insinuate that you are a criminal when you have not even done anything of criminal intent. In psychology there is something called ‘self-fulfilling prophesy’ meaning that people will behave in the manner that you treat them. Treat them like criminals and you birth criminals.

{The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behaviour which makes the original false conception come true. This specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning.}– Merton, RK (1948).

On Thursday evening I joined the march at the Engineering building around 9:45 pm. At that time some protesting students were going into the faculty to disrupt students who were studying, with the objective to ask them to join the movement. They were met with resistance and this was the only place where they were met with resistance. The #StelliesFeesMustFall leadership handled it and the group moved on. When I joined the group they were about 300 students. We moved from residence to residence asking students to join and soon there were a large group of students in their pyjamas joining the march. At just after one o’clock there were possibly five thousand students gathering at the Rooiplein in the Bibgat being addressed by the #StelliesFeesMustFall leaders. Here is the link to the speech made by Lovelyn Nwadeyi during the gathering.

During Lovelyn’s speech she thanked the staff of Stellenbosch University for all their support. A student standing behind me commented, “Where are they now, probably sleeping?” I turn around and stated, “We are here, I am staff and there is Pieter Kloppers”. Even the students had single stories about the staff and their involvement and care for them and the cause. There were many staff members from supporting staff, administrative staff to academic staff. Some were there to support the cause, others to support the students and help keep the protest violent free. There were many who were ready to stand in-between students and the police, should any conflict occur. I am very proud of these staff members, no matter the reason for their attendance.

I will never forget that moment, and even just writing about it makes me emotional. I looked those students in the eyes, with the knowledge of what happened at Parliament the day before, 21 October 2015. Here is a video of that incident. A deep love for each of the students rose in my heart and I pledged to myself that should the police show up and things get out of hand, I am ready to give up my life. I was not going to let anyone hurt any of these students; not on my watch. The students that were surrounding me were some of our best students, our leaders, our cum-lauding students and not the “lazy ones”, as many uninformed opinions suppose.

On Thursday, 22 October 2015, during lunch time 13:00, I attended a meeting. During the meeting, students ran into the building. We were on the fourth floor and curiously most of us ran to the window to see what was happening. Someone then commented, “Kyk hoe hardloop hulle met hulle rooi keppies”. The statement implied that the movement was led by the EFF and that all the students in the movement was part of the EFF. There was one student with an EFF, cap. Yes, one! Again, I was in the midst of educated people refusing to engage and be critical thinkers and this time the comment came from a staff member or community partner in that faculty. We are so quick to politicize everything with our own single stories. I am proud of the students who kept the movement non-political! The #StelliesFeesMustFall collective were all students from various political parties, student leadership structures and others.

Just as I was about to exit this meeting, the chair said that I should go out using the side entrance because the building is occupied by protesting students. I refused to use the side entrance and when I came to the main door, the door was open and it was so quiet that you could hear a penny drop. Again, a single story of fear was communicated. Roaming around in the building trying to find the protesting students, I ended up in another meeting where concerned staff were gathering. Many deans and professors and supporting staff members attended the meeting. The meeting ended in us drawing up a statement where we asked for the interdict (described in Lovelyn’s speech) to be removed against the students among others. Many staff members cared and they showed their support in the best way they could. Some even took food and blankets for the students who occupied a building on campus and slept there during the night.

I missed most of the Wednesday, 22 October 2015, Organized Mass March due to another lunch time meeting that I had to attend. After the meeting a white Afrikaner male and might I add; a ginger, almost grabbed me by the arm “Come Bianca! One day when we have free education in this country, you can tell your kids that you were there when the call for it started.” I was deeply touched by his words and seeing the passion in his eyes for this cause, caused me to join the movement. I also became shamelessly aware of my own single story. I judged him as a person who would not care for the poor, just because he was “white privileged”. I however did apologized to him, for allowing myself to form a stereotyped opinion about him because he was a white, Afrikaans, ginger male! Before this encounter I was pretty much sitting on the fence myself. My workload is extremely heavy at the moment and I try to keep focus on what I need to do to keep to all my responsibilities. However in that moment, the ‘I’ had to die for the collective. On Friday, 23 October 2015, during the final mass protest, I saw this same individual handing out water to all the protesters. To all who thought this was a black thing, you are wrong.

After the Friday afternoon mass gathering on Merriman where our rector Prof Wim de Villiers addressed the students and met all our requests. I also witnessed another white Afrikaans friend of mine picking up the trash and carrying heavy water bottles. What struck me about this was; 1) he is part of the power team guys at the local church that I attend. One of the power team responsibilities is to pack out the chairs before church as well as to clean the venue afterward. It was heartfelt to see him be the same person in public as he was in church. 2) We accidently joined the very first #feesmustfall gathering at the Bibgat on Friday, 16 October 2015. At that time he had different views about what was happening and I had no opinion. I am not sure when his turning point or what his reasons were for being there, but he showed lots of character. For that I want to honour him.

Honour and relationship is one of the biggest values that I live by. I was saddened to witness the lack of honour that we the students expressed to our leadership during the protest and especially during the Friday gathering. I do value the fact that we kept our leaders accountable and stood up against injustice, but we can still do all of this with honour. Top management is not the enemy and neither is Prof De Villiers. Yes, the man is white but that does not make him a racist or against transformation. Management also cares about the students, believe it or not. They are also not the only people who make decisions on this campus. There are lots of boards and committees above them. And yes, they have made some bad decisions and they are being kept accountable for it and we should continue to do so but not without honour. Sometimes some of those decision are even made with resistance. Top management is not a person. They are a group of people who all come from different spectrums of life, each with their own single stories.

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” (Romans 13:1 NIV)

“Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, and honour the emperor.” (1Peter 12:17 NIV)

The most incredible moment of the #StelliesFeesMustFall protest was during the Midnight Mass gathering on Thursday evening. We ended the gathering with our National Anthem, Nkosi Si’kelele iAfrika. (Pardon my rendition of our national anthem.)

The protest had attained much more than just establishing a 0% increase in university tuition fees, as stated by my friend Cilnette Pienaar on Facebook: “Two other things I observed that are being accomplished by #feesmustfall: a) The revival of exercising a democratic right to hold those in power accountable, and b) actual cause-driven unity amongst diverse SA students.”

Our students demonstrated what I, in my various positions at Stellenbosch University am trying to teach some of them; to be critical thinking leaders and to be active citizens. Not only did I see the students demonstrate these qualities but I also saw the significance of my own thesis as I mostly write about graduate attributes and active citizenship. In a time where I was asking God to show me what the next steps should be in my career, the #feesmustfall movement showed me that I was right where I belonged! So thank you for that!! #highdiscipline #highmoral #ProudMatie

There are so many different narratives on what happened, this is but my experience and only a portion of my experience. I do charge you to also watch the TedTalk on The Danger of a Single Story. I was not just confronted with the good that came from this protest but also the many single stories that have the potential to steal from its beauty and blind us from having a complete story about the protest as a whole. I was also confronted about the countless single stories we have of others in general and how we choose to hold on to these stereotypes. Aside from the protest, let’s guard the unity amongst us and let’s choose to be informed, ask questions and walk more than a mile in the steps of others.

During the week of 16 October 2015 – 23 October 2015, HISTORY was indeed made!

From Bianca Joseph’s personal blog, reproduced with kind permission from the author: 

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