In 2001, a mother working on a farm in Limpopo province earning R1400 per month says goodbye to her beautiful child as she begins her 8km trek to school for her first day. Thandi, the eldest of three children is starting grade one. She carries a 2l bottle of water and some food her mom packed her. The food is often the only meal she eats all day, costing her mom close to R400 per month if she includes milk and bread. The family survives on moms remaining salary. Although Thandi’s mom cannot read and write, nor has she ever seen the inside of Thandi’s classroom, she sleeps well knowing her children get to go to school. She understands that education is the way out of poverty. Her vision for her children is for them to fulfill their true potential.
Thandi is met with a dilapidated school building and almost slips into the long drop on her first trip to the toilet. Despite this, the principal and teachers share Thandi’s mom’s vision for education–they see their job as more than teaching, but an opportunity to empower, emancipate, and educate young people. Thandi thrives, and despite her constant hunger, progresses well. The learners around her, faced with the reality of caring for siblings, expensive school uniforms, and constant hunger are forced to leave school. 1.28 million learners start grade one with Thandi in South Africa’s 14,565 primary schools. Of the group that started with Thandi, roughly three quarters made it to matric year. One fifth or about 295,478 South African learners were pushed out of the system at an average of 25,735 per year.Those pushed out of school were forced into the mines, factories or streets. The apartheid legacy lives on.
Despite the odds being stacked against her, Thandi pushed through to defy the apartheid designed subjugation that sought to define her only by what she looks like. Of the 978,710 that wrote the final exam, 773,180 (73.9%) passed. More than 200,000 of her fellow matric class stayed behind. Of those that passed, Thandi was part of 278,344 (30.6%) that earned university exemption. That same year, universities received 31,253 applications for undergraduate study but only admitted 6,463 new first-year undergraduate students.Of that group, she was lucky to be part of a small number of students approved for National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funding nationwide. She began her studies to become a teacher at Wits University, carrying the weight of her community and the vision of her mother.
Her struggle didn’t stop there. Despite being part of only 5% of the original class of learners who began school in 2001, she faced a hostile university environment. The legacy of structural marginalization continued as she faced institutional racism, English lecturers who did not consider her language challenges, a curriculum with expectations such as teaching practical’s without the support to reach those expectations. She felt as though the university did not know who their students were, and frankly they did not care.
Despite this, Thandi pushed on. Enduring hunger as NSFAS funding was cut and resisting the constant threat of financial, residential and academic exclusion. Around Thandi, her peers were not so lucky. In her first year alone, universities pushed out 50% of their first year students. One of the top three reasons given in universities across the nation was financial exclusion. Thandi saw each year how students with stories just like hers were forced to swallow the bitter pill that everything they, their families, and communities had worked for was lost. If Thandi makes it to her final year, she represents half of her entering class. As a Black woman in a previous White Institution, her odds of being where she currently is are slim. Despite this, as a third year student Thandi is determined. One Black student, excluded on the grounds of finances shared with Thandi how betrayed she felt when, after being financially excluded, passed Nkandla on the way home to her village. She wept as she cursed the political greed that snatched her dreams.
Thandi has made it this far, but her final year is under threat. The Vice Chancellor announced a 10.5% fee hike for the upcoming year. Simultaneously, the Minister of Higher Education reduces NSFAS funding by 10% but raises the student enrollment numbers by 71% between 2002 and 2012. Thandi is heading for financial exclusion without the means to pay for her final year. The universities in response blame the lack of funding on government who blame the universities for not absorbing costs. It is easier for these two entities to push the blame to each other while forcing fee increases. Just like 2007 and 2009, publically, government and universities will blame each other, but in private they collude to raise fees. Their strategy is to patiently attack the morale of resisting students using threats of exclusion, co-optation of leaders to divide student unity, court interdicts, police harassment and complete denial of the impact of fee increases. The use of structural power by government and universities against students will only end when students submit to the fee increase which will exclude them from the university.
Thandi has two choices: give up on the vision for herself and her community or fight for her right to be educated. Having made it this far, she has no choice but to fight against the pattern she has observed her whole educational career–apartheid designed educational push out of the Black child. She understands the media will portray her as violent. The police will likely be sent in to harass, intimidate, and even kill her. Fringe groups, political interests will try capturing the narrative through violence or coercion. Many will sell out. Despite this, she understands that what she is peacefully fighting for is her right to human dignity: for her place in this world that has longed denied her.
She is fighting to graduate, teach in her community, and make a difference to the future of our country–how, fellow South Africans, can we fight alongside her?
*As a White male South African I used the fictional character of Thandi to place #FeesMustFall in context. I humbly recognize my privilege and in no way aim to speak on behalf of Black Women or any other marginalized grouping. Thandi’s character is based on a series of interviews with students and a range of public access data.
The Department of Basic Education’s Report on Dropout and Learner Retention Strategy to Portfolio Committee on Education (2011)
 DBE. (2008). Ministerial Committe Report on learner retention in the South African School System. Pretoria: Department of Basic Education.
 The Department of Basic Education’s Report on Dropout and Learner Retention Strategy to Portfolio Committee on Education (2011) (p. xii)
 South Africa Info (2013) http://www.southafrica.info/about/education/matric-070114.htm
 Southern African Regional Universities Association. 2012. “South Africa Data Profile 2012.”
 Letseka, M, and Simeon M. High University drop-out rates: a threat to South Africa’s future. Pretoria: Human Science and Research Council, 2008. N. page. Human Science and Research Council. Web. 2 Mar. 2013.
 Bizzoli, B (2015) Behind the university funding crisis. http://www.politicsweb.co.za/news-and-analysis/behind-the-university-funding-crisis
 Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET) – South African Higher Education Open Data. “Full Dataset 200-2012, Table 01 – Enrolments Headcount and FTE.” http://chet.org.za/data/sahe-open-data