Photo: Petrie Jansen van Vuuren
Photo: Petrie Jansen van Vuuren

Written by: Petrie Jansen van Vuuren


As a society, we need to sit down, set our emotions aside for a moment, and have a sober talk about FeesMustFall.

I’m not here to throw my lot in with the multitude of articles attempting to answer the question of whether free tertiary education is an economic viability, and if so, how or for whom. There has already been a multitude of literature written on the topic from all sides of the political spectrum.

I’m adding my voice to the din in an effort to address the ways in which we, South Africa’s youth, its future leaders, are conducting our activism. These same future leaders, doctors, lawyers, and economists are on the ground doing what they feel is right, passionately fighting for the better future their figureheads are selling them – all while forcing the silent majority of students to either support them, or stay away, by pressuring the universities into shutting down. Many find their goals just, but the methods are judged as being highly questionable. Emotions run high on both sides.

Emotions should serve as our motivation to fight for a cause, but not become the tool by which we do so. One only needs to look at what the media is reporting nearly daily at this stage to see this point. Students express their rage by attacking university infrastructure in response to financial exclusion. They fear being denied what seems to be a golden ticket to the workforce. Fearful, the university administration unleash police, who retaliate with excessive force. In the end, this only further angers the protesters, leading to the torching of buildings and the creation of petrol bombs that are promptly found on campus.

Throughout social media, the presses and the protests themselves, we’re flooded by rhetoric. Laden with appeals to emotion from various tribalist camps within the movement, they attempt to justify a stance which seems to only benefit their contingents.

petrie-jansen-van-vuuren-fmf-image-2On the one hand, you have emotional accounts, that not just pull but tear at your heartstrings, of the realities faced by the disadvantaged of our nation, and the glimmer of hope a degree offers. Indeed, why should there be such a high financial barrier of entry? Every academically deserving student should be given the opportunity to study towards his or her desired path in life.

On the other hand, you have the middle class fretting about the quality of their education and that of their children in a post-fees-have-fallen world. If the universities would even be able to go on functioning at all, would a free degree still be worth a shadow of its current equivalent?

Regardless of one’s stance on the obstruction of university functions, you can’t deny that this has been incredibly effective at getting the nation’s attention. Well, now you’ve got our ears, FeesMustFall. Now give us something concrete to listen to. Win over our minds.

It seems to me that both sides of the argument possess part of the puzzle, but neither seems willing to admit that their picture is not entirely complete. Why do we so vehemently deny that our ideological opponents may be speaking sense on some matters? There is an argument to be made for an additive compromise on the FeesMustFall matter, but to even begin to consider this, we need to address the question of: where is the discussion in the first place?

At no point in this year’s iteration (and let’s be honest, there was very little last year as well) have we seen a battle of ideas. For all its fire and fury, FeesMustFall seems to consistently spawn idealists convinced that their path is the only one – one they’re able to effectively pass on to their student disciples, without any plans of their own on how these may be achieved.

SEE ALSO: Good and Bad ideas by Nicholas Woode-Smith

The message that we are teaching our future leaders is that the individual who shouts for their idea most passionately and creates the most noise, while silencing their opposition in the process, is the winner. Ideas are not being weighed up for their respective merits, but rather our scant public conversations in the press and in social circles take the form of straw men arguments and ad hominem in single-sided opinion pieces. Personally, I hold Parliament, the Universities and Campus Political Parities accountable for this.


I will admit that there is the odd interview or “debate” one can dredge up on YouTube, usually between some of the more radical idealists existing on both ends of the spectrum (after all, friction makes for good television). But there is no mutually beneficial intellectualism in these discussions. In the absence of true, intelligent public dialogue, we are left with protesters guided by ideological extremists, acting out demands by force, while exasperated university administrations cower under the weight of government indifference.

Why have the camps in this movement not put forth intellectual figureheads with aims, not of simple one-upmanship, proving a point, or political promotion, but rather sitting down and genuinely finding an additive compromise on the way forward?

This absence of public goal-driven discussion, free of name-calling, vague social justice terminology, and personal political agendas, leaves a general public that is too afraid / ignorant / apathetic to engage on these topics. This leads to the inevitable result that the radical ideologues are left to fill up all remaining intellectual real estate. In doing so, their voices are assumed to convey the only possible stances on this matter. All that’s left for your every-man to do is share viral posts on social media and hope that whomever the last man holding the much passed buck is, is one that can make a rational decision.

In light of all of this, a most unsettling possibility lingers. We may be faced with a movement that does not wish to analyse the facts in a cold and clinical manner, for fear of what may be revealed. There is a drive and urgency to unfettered emotion that plays well into the country’s political theatre, and the popular media are all too happy to clap along. I can only hope that they prove me wrong, and in the interest of a truly better future for the disadvantaged demographics they wish to represent, the conversation around this topic becomes much more inclusive and intellectual.

Author: Petrie Jansen van Vuuren is a medical student at the University of the Witwatersrand, with a postgraduate background in neuroscience research. When not studying the biological sciences he can usually be found flirting with political theory and philosophy.