Fighting the system from within

Written by Rekgotosfetse Chikane in Letters

“I am also prepared to defy the law.” These words were spoken in 1952 by Chief Albert Luthuli at the beginning of the Apartheid Defiance Campaign which involved numerous stakeholders across the country. It was his way of signaling that, in order to create change within an unfair system, one must be willing to join others who are fighting the system – even if this means defying the state and the law.

So when I look at financial aid students, and in particular black students (all encompassing), I wonder whether they will be willing to defy the law to help those who are fighting against an unjust system.

During a conversation with a friend last week, I was struck by the honesty of his opinion that we simply cannot define progress as the ability for the few to achieve social upward mobility, especially when those few remain firmly in the majority of the country as a whole. It’s a nuanced argument of what is absolute progress versus relative progress.

I am firmly an advocate of the latter; that in order to achieve real progress in South Africa we will require large scale change rather than the incremental change seemingly advocated at UCT. Many will speak about the change that occurred in 1994 that gave us the freedoms we enjoy today, but when looking at society now it doesn’t take a lot to acknowledge that these freedoms are very hollow to many across the country.

Thus I write this letter to Financial Aid students at UCT to say that I don’t believe you are doing enough to create change in our society. I think you have been made comfortable by being placed in one of the best Fin Aid systems in the country and that you have been made content to help only yourself and your family. This, though, is not your fault and I do acknowledge that there are still many of you who suffer and struggle every day just to make it through the week.

But I believe that on top of all of your current responsibilities there should be the overarching responsibility to ensure that those who follow you do not fall into the same problems. It is an unfair responsibility that I believe you have to firmly take in your stride. That your goal should not be to simply uplift only your family but it should be to uplift your community as well as country.

I say this because I honestly do not believe that relative change can be made by the students at UCT who come from schools such as SACS, St Johns, Michael House, Grey College, St David’s or even my own rather progressive high school. Though their efforts are admirable, and I implore them to continue, by pure absolute numbers and willpower they will not be able to uplift the poor and marginalised of the country.

We live in a country of political freedom chained by economic inequality; in a country where students who protest against unfair discrimination towards those who are financially needy are threatened with expulsion from their university. During January, students at the University of Johannesburg were arrested and threatened with suspension because they felt aggrieved by NSFAS failing to pay their fees and the university giving them the cold shoulder.

While these students sat in jail wondering where their futures lay, but still strong in their convictions, I wondered what would be the reaction of UCT students in similar social and economic conditions. The answer I came to was a resounding “Nothing!”  

Students across the country protested against being denied access to results from 2013. Some were unlawfully removed from their residences with no alternative and some even sat in the offices of the Department of Higher Education throughout the night, all because of problems between NSFAS and the university that were beyond their control.  Students from UJ, TUT, UWC etc. were willing to defy the law if the need arose because the system failed them and had been failing them for years.

But at UCT we did nothing. You did nothing. I know I might be accused of generalising with respect to the agency of Fin Aid students, but can you honestly say that UCT students will one day change the fortune of the millions of the country? I don’t think so. I don’t think so simply because at this university you have been made comfortable with the idea that “I” can uplift “myself” when I get “my” degree. We might say differently with our words but our actions show our true intentions.

The best way I think you can gauge whether you are willing to make a meaningful relative change in society is to ask yourself whether you are also prepared to defy the law because the law protects an unjust system. It’s an unfair question to pose to some, but I firmly believe that a time will come soon in this country when that question will be firmly thrust at you. I hope that at that time you will be able to make the choice that isn’t based on just your wellbeing or that of your families but is based on ensuring that future generations will not suffer the same fate. It’s a difficult question to answer but, then again, change is always difficult to achieve.


Rekgotsofetse Chikane  


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