On Friday October 21, Benjamin Phehla died, and South Africa held its breath.
Would this be the last straw that literally broke the camel’s back and unleash the pent-up maelstrom of increasingly mindless rage which is gripping the Fallist movement?
The Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) former student leader – he was a past student council chairperson, and information and communications technology student – was struck by a car during protests on the Shoshanguve campus, where a group of students demanded transport to the #FeesMustFall march on the Union Buildings.
But relative calm was restored, and while the protesting students mourned their fallen comrade, the country settled into an uneasy homeostasis, but the ever-present underlying tensions that are tearing apart the very fabric of our society continue to fester, as we wait for the next potential trigger of our very own South African Spring.
It was an occurrence such as this, which set alight the Magreb, when on December 17 2010, Tunisian vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, doused himself with petrol and set himself alight, after a brutal assault by police for trading without a licence.
Within a month, the 23-year dictatorship of Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali came to an end, the contagion spread across the Magreb, across Egypt and into the Middle East, as population after population saw what was possible with concerted action. The revolution was not without bloodshed, and the final outcomes of that seminal shift in the Arab world have yet to materialise – Syria remains intractably embroiled in an unwinnable war – but it took that final desperate act of self-immolation to trigger the events that have changed our world forever.
Just over a year ago, the #FeesMustFall movement spontaneously came into being, and in a few short weeks, had the ANC government cowering behind a line of riot police, as the resolute students marched on Parliament during Pravin Gordhan’s MTBPS, demanding no tertiary education fee increase for the 2016 academic year. There was violence and confrontation, but the protesting students were largely peaceful in their engagement, raising arms above heads, with wrists crossed, to show they carried no weapons.
The Fallists marched on Luthuli House, and persuaded ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe to come out and talk to them, and accept a memorandum of demands.
When the protest broke up, and the students returned to campus, it was peaceful, ordered, and they cleaned up the streets of any litter they might have dropped on the way.
A march on the Union Buildings followed and that’s where it began to turn ugly. Jacob Zuma, in typical silent president fashion, declined to address the student protesters, and mayhem ensued.
That he eventually announced a zero percent fee increase for 2016 is beside the point: he had already set the stage for what was to unfold a year later, when Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande tossed a smoking bomb into the lap of every vice-chancellor of every university in the country, by abdicating his role in managing the explosive issue of the 2017 tertiary education fee increase. The protests running wildfire-like across the country in the last two months, have turned violent.
No more a purposeful yet peaceful initiative with a focus on fees, it has become a catch- all for the corrosive anger of a generation that believes its parents were sold down the river in 1994.
And so we wait for the touch-paper incident which will set in motion events that change our country forever.