FEATURE I From De Beer to Ntumba Street – a protest more than just about fees falling

Reading Time: 7 minutes

“If you are not triggered by (Mthokozisi) Ntumba’s death, maybe you will be triggered by your own,” former Wits University SRC President, Orediretse Masebe, said on Friday evening while addressing protesting Wits students.

The event marked an end to what had been a day of protests against financial exclusion at Wits University.

However, time and again it becomes clearer that issues underlying these protests for free higher education in the country are complex and deep-rooted.

“Anyone who is stuck with an elitist mentality that this is somehow a response to what is happening at Wits University, you are in the wrong place (sic). Here we are trying to brew a revolt. We are trying to brew a defiance system. We are saying it is no longer about those petty issues, because even if we get 100 students registered today, come March the 11th we will still be running in the street like headless chickens,” says Masebe. 

“Even those of you who have graduated, know for a fact, you can’t qualify for a loan, you can’t buy a car, you can’t buy a house. You must ask your uncle or aunt because you are in debt. That’s why you come back, and you do another degree, you do your Honours; you’ve got three Honours now, you are trying for a Masters, but still you are in debt. So, the problem is not you. The problem is an anti-Black, anti-poor system. And it has shown its last teeth (sic) by the murdering of uNtumba.” 

As the night set in, street lights came on – warding off the darkness from engulfing the streets of Braamfontein –  with the atmosphere reeking of burnt tyres and all sort of things, and debris laying along the street in the aftermath the Fees-Must-Fall protests, which had rocked the city earlier in the day, a group of students belonging to Wits EFF Student Command gathered at the corner of Stiemens and De Beer streets, where 35-year-old Mthokozisi Ntumba was killed on Wednesday.

Singing struggle songs, the students laid wreathes metres from where the 35-year-old was shot while coming from a clinic.

The students have since renamed De Beer Street to Ntumba Street. 

The public servant’s death has become synonymous with the 2021 Fees Must Fall protests, with President Cyril Ramaphosa describing his shooting as “deeply disturbing.”

Calm before storm

The day had started smoothly with members gathered outside the Wits University campus with students coming out in dribs and drabs and not letting much out as to what their plan of action would be.

What followed as a song and chant along the street, soon escalated into chaos when huge numbers of protestors emerged from nowhere with tyres. The smell of petrol on the shiny tyres, revealed what was just about to go down. 

The students, some clad in ANC regalia, then marched to the Mineworkers’ Monument in Braamfontein where the protestors tried in vain to topple the statue, further testimony that the issue behind the anger is more than fees that must fall. The statue, which was sculpted by David MacGregor, was erected in 1964 in honour of mineworkers. 

According to Cebolenkosi Khumalo, the chairperson of the Wits Progressive Youth Alliance, the statue represents, “fake unity.” 

“We don’t want any colonial statues; any statue that represents the oppression … the statue there represents fake unity. There are two black men, and the one we wanted to take down was a (that of a) white male. It represents fake unity. The majority of people who are working in the mines, the majority of people who suffered in the mines are black bodies. That’s why we wanted to remove the white statue because it represents fake unity. The new South Africa we want, we do not want fake unity. True unity would mean that there is economic freedom, would mean there is free education.”  

Khumalo says White people “didn’t suffer in the mines.” 

The protest was put on halt later on in the afternoon to allow a meeting between the student leaders and Wits vice-chancellor, Professor Zebulon Vilakazi.  

At the top of the agenda was the registration of students who still owe the university. The Wits SRC says students who owe up to R150 000 must be allowed to register and sign an acknowledgment of debt.  

Students say Wits management is refusing this. 

SRC Deputy president, Sthembiso Dabula, says they were left with no choice, but to disrupt the registration process. 

“You know the type of year 2020 was. With COVID-19, people lost their jobs. Students were defunded by bursaries. Students were defunded by NSFAS as well. So, how do you then say only students who are owing R10 000 and below are supposed to register wherein precedence shows that only students who were owing R120 000 were allowed to register. So, these concessions were not met but met with arrogance.

The only thing they were able to do was to extend registration. So, it does not make sense for them to extend registration because it seems students are all of a sudden going to have money. Where are they going to get it from?” 

But even if Wits agrees to allow the owing students to register, according to Khumalo, the strike will continue on other issues including free and decolonised education for all.

This is not the first protest over fees at the university. In 2015, classes were suspended at Wits after students staged a sit-in rejecting the proposed tuition hike of 10.5%. That was the beginning of the #WitsFeeMustFall protest.

Below is the infographic on protests at the institution:



Candlelight vigil

Meanwhile, representatives from various organisations, held a candlelight vigil in Cape Town for Ntumba on Friday night.

A group that includes students, learners and workers representatives gathered at the Grand Parade in the CBD also to show solidarity with the students who are fighting against financial exclusion.   

Cwayita Wenana from Equal Education says, “We unite with students in high education. We unite with other people fighting in other sectors to be in solidarity with students and the cadre who lost his life and also to say we want better from our government we want them to fix and fund our schools, but government has done the opposite they have taken money away from all of us.

University’s student protests:

While students at South African universities have been protesting for years now against high tertiary tuition fees, some social and political commentators believe that such matters will continue to dog democratic South Africa until the complex issues underlying these protests are addressed.