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.


  1. Thank you for the balanced and coll-headed point of view. The danger is really that in the end all political groups and “laagers’ just scream and shout at each other. Noise killing reason and intellectual interaction. How to avoid that ?

    • I think you’re very charitable. I am not aware that any attempt at intellectual, rational, reasoned discussion on this issue has been given a hearing by the rioting mobs and their spokespeople. That is a mentality not open to debate. How is it possible to reason with people who shout down any opposing voice? Who string stupid and racist slogans together, are vicious, hectoring, threatening, vitriolic. They don’t engage. They shout . They demand. They trash. They riot. They throw bricks. They burn buses. They assault the police. They violate the rights of anyone of a different mind. How is it possible to engage with such a mentality? Listen to the hectoring harpy in the ‘science must fall’ video, or the one ‘engaging’ with Max Price, or the one maligning the BBC reporter in a hospital. How could one possibly engage with such a malignant mindset?

      These thugs are demanding free education for themselves, and at the same time demanding that the education be tailored to a lower standard. There’s a 68% drop-out rate among this mentality. This is no noble quest to pave the way for upliftment of society. This is absolutely self-serving, and to hell with anyone in the way, including students who struggle to pay for their education and are capable of completing it, and overburdened taxpayers who are expected to further subsidise people who behave like retarded thugs.

      • Dear Steven, This a first one. The first time in my life I am called “very charitable” No, i am not. I just plea to remain cool-headed. That does not exclude declaring a state of emergency on the affected universities, order the police to shoot with real ammo and lock the rioters into a nice labor camp in the Karroo. Exactly that i would do as Minister of Police.

        • Dear Harald, I’m relieved to hear it. It’s a fact that against bricks and slabs of concrete, rubber pellets are kid gloves. The mob-rule is destroying private and state property and violating the rights of the innocent to state protection, a right that should be taken for granted and one that is enshrined in our Constitution. There’s something horribly wrong with a government that allows this rioting to persist, and much harder action clearly should long ago have been taken against the fomenters as well as the mobs.

          After the long fight for what they call democracy, what we have got is an ochlocracy; the ANC is so busy trying to conceal its reigning kleptocracy that it hasn’t given a thought to the welfare of South Africa’s valuable citizens, the students who are studying and the workers who are working. Thank you for speaking up. This would not happen if the silent majority didn’t allow it. What saddens me is that very few Blacks are condemning this violence.

          • Ochlocracy is the perfect term. But it must include all those fellow travelers in academia who disseminate radical chic though gender studies & all that jazz.

            In my social contacts all – white, black, whatever – strongly speak out against this riff Raff.

            But i really wonder why the orderly students, orderly staff , orderly citizens do not in public speak out and DO counter actions.

            I have never experienced Saffricans as cowards or shy !

          • The leaders and fomenters (whether they be thick thugs or academics, or both) need to take the brunt of the responsibility. One can only wonder why they are still at large, leading a terrorist war against the law-abiding public with evident impunity.

            The inaction of decent South Africans in the face of these serious threats to the future of our democracy appalls me almost as much as the terrorists’ actions. Perhaps the good people are too busy learning and working to find the time and energy to actively fight this, but we are also short of assertive and unafraid leadership to grasp this monster by the neck and throttle it. It’s a hackneyed quote, but it bears constant repetition: all that is required for evil to triumph is for the good people to do nothing.

            We see the same savagery manifest in ANC councillors in councils they have lost. Resorting to violence seems to be the chief trait of this mentality. One would think the seriousness of the threat, not just to education, but to the rule of law, justice and democracy would be obvious. It seems to me that the die is now cast.

          • Not far from the manganelo and ricinus oil 🙂 The question is: How far we may go in defending the essentials? I believe quite far. if we look at the history of “real existing” socialism and the work of cultural Marxism ( for me rather nihilism in the sense of Bakunin) tremendous misery, destruction, genocide, mass murder, starvation, pauperisation had been brought about the effected peoples and nations. I do not see us obliged to sit and wait for the results of the next experiment. What was done by the army in Chile in September 1973 was absolutely right.