Everything must fall

Fees Must Fall (#FMF) brought student activism at South Africa's elite universities into the global media spotlight. A new documentary zooms in on the case of Wits in Johannesburg.

Image credit Daylin Paul.

The first few images of Everything Must Fall, a documentary about the Fees Must Fall student protests that rocked South Africa, are a little perplexing. The film opens with the 2013 installation of Adam Habib as the vice chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand. As Habib gives his inaugural address, speaking on how the university represents “the country’s pain and its euphoria,” his words are juxtaposed with archival footage of student protest dating back to the 1980s.

It’s an unexpected choice, but one that makes more sense as the documentary continues. This film is about explaining context and circumstances. It’s been three years since the first #FMF protests—South Africa’s largest student protest since 1976—and the broader issues and images associated with it are now well known. The protest was at the time covered by mainstream media and by the protest participants themselves on myriad social media. There have been numerous books, at least three quality documentaries, a musical, and—currently touring—a play that address Fees Must Fall and its implications, consequences and controversies. Yet, amidst these dives into the larger meaning, granular details and explanations are lost.

In Everything Must Fall, Desai touches on the less-covered aspects of FMF. The fact that at Wits it started as protest against outsourcing and the exploitative conditions suffered by workers at the institution, and the role of intersectionality and its friction with masculine politics (liberation politics were notorious for sidelining women) from the earliest days of the protest. The escalating conflict between students, private security and—in the protests’ last weeks—riot police in armored vehicles is also explored.

Desai helpfully uses a timeline in to orient the viewer. In place of a narrator, tweets flutter across the screen highlighting developments, and interspersed with accounts of FMF as told, most powerfully, by the participants themselves. Habib, the film establishes early on, is a product of the radical left in South Africa and a former student activist. Yet, he now finds himself fending off student demands for free and decolonized education—ones he professes to agree with—behind technocratic, though not necessarily inspiring, arguments for fiduciary responsibility in the face of government intransigence.

Contrasting Habib’s sober managerialism, student leader Shaaera Kalla is the documentary’s pragmatic idealist. Throughout the film, whether in interviews or in footage from the protests, Kalla is seen encouraging, admonishing, and negotiating with her fellow protesters.

Both Habib and Kalla struggle with their circumstances, the former more obviously than the latter. Habib as a “scholar of the left” is aware of the injustice of neoliberal education but is unable to act on this belief without the promise of more funding from the government. “We see ourselves as progressives but in a kind of managerial position,” Habib says. “We’re governed by the systemic parameters and when spaces open up we take the opportunities.”

It is here how one can see why Habib is a contrary, and sometimes frustrating figure for so many. Described as a “scholar of the left” in the film, Habib can astutely describe the injustice of neoliberalism in education and can critique his own role in it. Yet despite this awareness he does not act upon it and approaches his role as a vice chancellor as a bloodless technocrat. If you were a person who thinks politics is something that should be turned into action, say an activist academic or student protester, you might find this vexing to say the least.

Kalla, more subtly, must manage a fractious student movement, including men who resent female leaders and political divisions between students aligned with either the ruling ANC or the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

If the protest, as depicted in the film, has a best self then Kalla probably embodies it. Near the end of the documentary, she is shot and severely injured by rubber bullets fired by the police with who she was attempting to negotiate. The film slows in lament for her, lingering over the description of the shooting and the physical pain of her recovery in its aftermath.

Inevitably for a single documentary, while the film comes close to telling the entire story of Fees Must Fall at the University of Witwatersrand, it only briefly acknowledges activism at other campuses, including protests at poorer, black universities, which were long ongoing before the shut-down of South Africa’s formerly white institutions.

This point is made in the film by Leigh-Ann Naidoo, an academic and activist herself. Naidoo is one of several academics who appear throughout the film who were sympathetic to the movement and, to some extent, became identified with it. Academics had been part of the protest in both 2015 and 2016. Throughout “Everything Must Fall” academics such as Naidoo offer details, as well as broader historical analysis, placing FMF in the broader context of post-Apartheid protest. Others appear in critical moments in the footage. When Wits agrees to end outsourcing, it is Wits politics lecturer Lwazi Lushaba who makes the announcement. During a fraught scene when students demand to be admitted to a staff meeting, a Wits staff member attempts to choke Wits anthropology lecturer Kelly Gillespie.

In contrast to Desai’s best known documentary, Miners Shot Down, Everything Must Fall does not make an overt or specific argument, preferring instead to be descriptive yet clearly sympathetic to the demands of students.There are some voices missing from the documentary. Though ever present in the file footage, student leader Mcebo Dlamini (a sometimes controversial figure) is not interviewed for the documentary. And then Wits SRC president, Nompendulo “Ulo” Mkhatshwa, also appears only in file footage.

According to an end note, Desai did approach then-minister of higher education, Blade Nzimande, for an interview but was turned down. If representatives from the police or security companies were approached, there is no mention of this. Perhaps more of a loss are the perspectives of ordinary police officers who exchanged rubber bullets for rocks and were from the same working class communities as many of the striking students.

Two years after Fees Must Fall and it’s worth taking stock. Many of the FMF leaders have moved on from university campuses while some still live with the fallout. Fasiha Hassan, who is featured in the film, has joined the ANC communications department ahead of next year’s election. She was also was awarded an international student peace prize for her activism during FMF—for which she was criticized by some other activists. Other activists are still fighting suspension from their universities and at least one is awaiting sentencing for criminal charges springing from the protests. Dlamini has split the difference and is still fighting a criminal case while campaigning to become ANC Youth League president later this year.

There is some irony in the fact that Fees Must Fall was a rejection of the politics that preceded it, and so many of its leading figures are now engaged in the same organized party politics. But it’s also part of the familiar life cycle of the South African student leader, as others have noted. They emerge with book bags, bullhorns and radical rhetoric. They organize protests (generally in the lenient study weeks leading up to the exam period), march, graduate and enter formal politics usually under the umbrella of the ANC or one of its affiliates. They’re then replaced by a new crop of student leaders and the cycle starts anew.

But as Kalla notes at the end of the film, yesterday’s student leaders don’t decide the future of Fees Must Fall. “It is a collective process that we hold in very sacred regard. Students will ultimately take this where it needs to be and I have faith that we will achieve our demand for free, decolonized education. But not without a fight.”

Further Reading

Fallism For What

After the reawakening of South African student activism, what next? It is at the point of the rub between race, class and gender politics that the difficult questions present themselves.