Last week’s #FeesMustFall student protests were ground-breaking for many reasons: this was the largest, most widespread student protest since the 1976 Soweto uprising, the collective power of the students (many of them born after South Africa’s first democratic elections), effected change in a very short space of time. They also illustrated the power of social media to rally and raise awareness. But one thing that stood out in particular, was the fact that women were leading the charge.
Throughout South Africa’s history, and the history of civil rights movements in general, feminism, and women, have often been sidelined. When it comes to social injustices, segregation and racism have historically taken precedence over women’s issues.
But it’s been inspiring to see that the #FeesMustFall movement is largely being led by women who are making sure that the fight for free education is intersectional.
Social media has played a large role in allowing the narrative of women leaders to gain publicity. The hashtag #MbokodoLead, inspired by the iconic phrase ‘Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo’ (You touch a woman, you strike a rock), is dedicated to the young female student leaders at the forefront of the student protests. The hashtag has become a collection of photographs and tweets that ensure the feminist narrative is not ignored.
Under the hashtag there are young female students and older female workers at universities across the country that have risen to the task of leading and motivating crowds, even when faced with stun grenades, rubber bullets and water canons. Below are just a few that have stood out to us.
Wits SRC presidents, Shaeera Kalla (outgoing) and Nompendulo Mkatshwa (incoming) have become two of the most iconic leaders of the protests. As the #FeesMustFall marches spread from Wits University to the rest of the country, culminating in the National Shutdown march to Luthuli House and the Union Buildings, they have demonstrated the power that comes from working together with students and workers of all political affiliations in an inclusionary way.
— Celeste Tema (@ctema) October 24, 2015
When the SRC managed to secure a suspension of the proposed 10.5% fee increase on October 18, Shaeera told the Daily Vox how their plans included all students, workers and academics. ‘Where the battle now needs to be fought is at University Assembly which will be made up of any student, worker and staff member who wants to be present – and it is something that has never been done before,’ she stated.
There is still evidence that female leaders cause discomfort amongst some. Nompendulo has noted that when she speaks in public, the crowd’s reaction is less enthusiastic than it is for her colleague, former SRC president, Mcebo Dlamini. Still, she dismisses nobody’s experience, saying ‘there are those who are still behind on ideas of (gender) transformation, but we will wait for them patiently as we have been doing for the last couple of years.’
In Cape Town, LGBTQI+ activist Pamela Dhlamini, wearing her iconic pink helmet, led students marching to parliament for the National Shutdown on Wednesday 21 October. Her tweets and rousing public speaking, made sure the protest narrative included race and LGBTQI+ issues. After students faced police brutality at the gates of parliament last week, Pamela was the student that took the stand at the Cape Town High Court to give her statement against SAPS.
The Rhodes Must Fall organisation has been an integral part of the #FeesMustFall protests and the ongoing battle against outsourcing of workers at universities. Alex Hotz is one of the student leaders behind the organisation and at the forefront of protests at the University of Cape Town. When police attacked and arrested students occupying UCT’s admin building on Monday 19 October, Alex was one of the leaders fighting for their right to protest peacefully.
These women have made it abundantly clear – in their resounding speeches, struggle songs and tweets – that the 0% fee increase for 2016 is merely the tip of the mountain of injustice they’re fighting. Until all the systems of oppression that affect all people in SA are addressed, these imbokodos will not stop. We’re right behind them.