It has been interesting to watch the latest iteration of #FeesMustFall from abroad. Throughout the period there was a distinct feeling of helplessness. The feeling ranged from being unable to assist with your body on the ground to being unable to give any other meaningful contribution to the cause besides a naive Facebook post. For a movement, whose national backbone is incessantly intertwined with social media, social media has truly failed to give an honest insight into the movement. Social media allows for the narrative of #FeesMustFall to be hijacked by various individuals distorting its intended message. The confusing message of #FeesMustFall as a nationally coordinated effort almost always emanates from internal inconsistencies both within and between universities: an inconsistency created by constantly competing ideological differences. With no clear reference point for what the values and beliefs of #FMF are, there will always be a constant battle for the ideological soul of #FMF. This ideological war for dominance will prove either to be the downfall of #FMF or the key to maintaining its center. I would thus argue that there is a need for a clear and identifiable national leadership of #FMF, not for creating modern-day demigods, but to ensure ideological consistency.
Often students believe #FMF should remain a non-partisan movement at its core. It is a view that I share myself, but I do not think it should extend towards making #FMF a non-political movement. To remove politics from #FMF is to remove its principled core. From the bravado of the Economic Freedom Fighters and the radical re-imagination of Fallism, to the more traditional and “conservative” views of the Progressive Youth Alliance and the Pan African Student Movement of Azania: all competing political views of #FeesMustFall that are in line with the overall direction of the movement should remain just that, competing for political views.
The competing politics of #FMF allow for the movement to maintain rich and varied discussions. However, the need for creating a national student leadership to take the work of #FMF forward should not be discounted out of fear of political hijacking. The political hijacking is already taking place, the question should be whether it should be hijacked by smoke filled WhatsApp groups or a legitimately recognised grouping of students?
This is an important step in pushing #FMF and the country forward. The rhetoric of a leaderless movement can only take you so far and I would argue that to move forward this model must come to an end. Not because it is not useful, but because the time has come to re-strategise the movement’s internal dynamics considering changes that have taken place within the movement. The battle for free education now is one that won’t be won by ideological and organisational statuses. We need to be constantly forming and reforming our opinions on the structure of #FeesMustFall to bring the movement forward.
South Africa suffers from a need to idolise leaders but this should not sway us away from finding leaders who don’t sway with the wind. Student politics often suffers from a lack of institutional memory. Often the victories we achieve today were already achieved years before us and we simply didn’t know they took place and the failures we come across could have been avoided if we paid heed to the failures of the past. I would argue that creating some form of leadership would alleviate this problem by creating a platform that maintains institutional knowledge.
As such, there is a need for #FMF and any future iteration to become serious about its coordinated message and actions in a manner that doesn’t involve smoke and mirrors. During my time away, I have both learned and understood the movement in a new way. The intricacies of the movement seen from within the country are far more complex when looking from the outside. Trying to keep track of every movement and action of the students has become a game of cat and mouse. Every mass meeting that took place at any campus elicited a desire to be a fly on the wall. But more importantly, watching #FMF from abroad gave me a greater appreciation of the movement itself.
South Africa needs #FeesMustFall because it has forced us to think differently about the issues that form the core of the problems in South Africa. It has become a platform for young people to organise and advocate for change, a platform that the country has been in dire need of. Though its reach is still limited to the confines of university spaces, #FMF has the potential to branch out of this space and become a platform for all young people.
As such, #FeesMustFall has become too big to fail; too necessary for change to be swept under the rug by winds of change; too important to have it torn apart by political infighting. With such a responsibility, there is a need for students to re-evaluate their long-term ambitions for the movement and protect it from infiltration and moral decay. There are those who wish to use #FeesMustFall to lead a revolution by destroying the movement and re-creating it in their own image. If that is to be the future of #FeesMustFall then let it be a future that is designed and deliberated upon by students who are vested in the future well-being.