Over the past few weeks, South African students struggling for the right to education took part in the largest demonstrations witnessed since the end of apartheid. Throughout these mostly peaceful protests, state security forces subjected the students to numerous rounds of tear gas, rubber bullets, stun grenades, water hoses, and mass arrests. The pernicious combination of unchecked police power and unequal access to education stands against everything that South Africa’s liberation was built upon. By contrast, this #FeesMustFall student movement is returning to the principles of liberation and solidarity that helped end apartheid. They link their struggle against the proposed massive fee increases — which makes education inaccessible to so many black and poor students — with a broader struggle against the government’s harsh austerity measures and the outsourcing of university staff.
In this same period, students in India have begun mobilizing under the banner #OccupyUGC in protest of the government’s decision to end research fellowships for graduate students in public universities. These cuts will adversely affect students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds who rely heavily on these fellowships to carry on their research. Protesters also see the cuts as a move towards further privatizing higher education by making it a service rather than a right.
As people working to see the implementation of the boycott of Israeli institutions complicit with the oppression of Palestinians, we write in solidarity with these struggles for equality and true academic freedom. The Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is one method to make those in power hear the voices of those demanding freedom and equality. These protests are another. We hope this is a moment opening the way for shared creative action against the systems that deny academic freedom.
Like students and scholars in Palestine, our South African colleagues live daily the consequences of discriminatory political and economic systems. Both countries have yet to extract themselves from the evils of apartheid. Black students in South Africa, and Palestinian students in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories have had their presents and futures narrowed by governmental unwillingness to make institutions of higher learning open to all.
And like their counterparts in Palestine, students and scholars in India are opposing the governmental policies and world economic structures that put higher education out of reach for most.
As scholars with close links to Palestinian universities that have become the frequent targets of Israeli military violence, we strongly condemn the use of force from state and private security groups against students. No unarmed group of students should have their campuses and their non-violent protests disrupted with tear gas, bullets, stun grenades, or lathi-charging and the arbitrary use of administrative detention and mass arrests.
We call for the immediate release of student protesters jailed for exercising their right to protest and political expression during the past few weeks – in India, South Africa, and Palestine. The right to protest was won through generations of toil and struggle and it must be defended.
We are heartened to hear that South African President Zuma announced that there would be no fee increases for 2016. This concession is a reminder to all of us that nonviolent struggles can be extremely effective in pressuring governments and changing policies. Students have carried on demonstrating, insisting that their victory would not be complete while underpaid university staff members continued to suffer from unfair wage and labor conditions. While we are glad to see that the protests in South Africa are already bearing fruit, this is an ongoing struggle. We fully support the students’ continued demand for free and equal education for all.
True academic freedom, like true democracy, requires the institutional conditions that allow people to enjoy the benefits of education and political representation. This means the end to discrimination based on of race, caste, and class. This means the end of military occupation. This means the right of refugees to return to the national lands from which they were evicted.
Some have been asking, is this another 1968? Is it another Soweto 1976? Is it a third intifada? We hope that a joining of forces among people who recognize the intersections of their struggles against institutionalized racism will herald the emergence of new and transformative action.