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WHEN it comes to student activism in South Africa, it was the decolonising #RhodesMustFall movement originating at the University of Cape Town in 2015-16 that caught the attention of the left and the media in Britain.
This powerful new documentary from Rehad Desai touches on these influential protests, but the central focus of the film is the lesser-known #FeesMustFall student movement at the University of Witwatersrand.
Through interviews with student leaders, the university’s vice-chancellor and sympathetic academics, tweets and on-the-ground footage, Desai tells the inspiring story of the huge uprising against university management and, ultimately, the neoliberal higher education policies of the African National Congress government.
With black students hit particularly hard by rising tuition fees, in October 2015 the students occupied the university, demanding free and “decolonised” education. A high-stakes struggle ensued between the radicalised students and the progressive, somewhat conflicted vice-chancellor Adam Habib, himself a leftist opponent of apartheid in his youth.
At one euphoric moment the students, led by two women, briefly take control of the university. With protests spreading to other universities, the movement also engaged with the plight of outsourced workers and the idea of a “decolonised library” and there are images of books by Steve Biko, Frantz Fanon, Chinua Achebe and Assata Shakur to highlight the point.
But with tensions mounting and large demonstrations outside government offices, the authorities cracked down on the revolt, with 600 students arrested in 2016.
Armed police, deployed on campus, were involved in running battles with students and there's some incredibly brave footage taken in the middle of these violent clashes.
A shocking scene shows student leader Shaeera Kalla being shot 13 times with rubber bullets immediately after she had tried to peacefully reason with the police.
Despite one student proclaiming: “No-one can stop an idea whose time has come,” the film ends without a conclusive victory for the students.
But it is worth noting the #FeesMustFall movement led to president Jacob Zuma announcing the freezing of tuition fees in 2016 and, in 2018, the government committed to providing free education for students from low-wage families. Several of the student leaders have recently been elected to the national parliament.
Described by one contributor as the most important protests in post-apartheid South Africa, Everything Must Fall has much to teach and inspire British activists and students looking to challenge their own neoliberal universities.
Everything Must Fall is showing at the Marxism Festival on Friday July 5 at Queen Mary, University of London.
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