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FeesMustFall Union Buildings March

- Lee-Anne Bruce

Yesterday, CALS – a human rights organisation based at the School of Law at Wits University – marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

We did so in support of the student-led movement that is sweeping across South Africa and calling for reform in higher education institutions, particularly around funding. Together with several colleagues from other civil society organisations, we were also there to act as legal monitors and provide legal assistance if necessary.

Although a small faction of the crowd attempted to hijack the day by throwing stones and burning toilets, this was met with throngs of students chanting ‘no violence’ and determined attempts by groups of students trying to form human barriers to try and prevent the toilets being pushed to the front. It is important that these moments are remembered as well – such as the surge of joy from students inside the precinct every time a new column of students joined them, or those students who formed a protective barrier around Muslim students to allow them the space to pray in peace and safety.

In the past 10 days, students in South Africa have shown us all that it is not good enough to be complacent about the failings of our democracy. They have taken their struggle to three of the most important sites in South Africa: Parliament, Luthuli House and the Union Buildings. In the course of that struggle new forms of negotiation have occurred where negotiations happen on the floor, in conditions of equality and transparency.  And the students have achieved an astounding commitment from government that university fees will not be increased at all in 2016. This phenomenal achievement comes against the backdrop of unacceptable and inappropriate use of force against protesting students in many parts of the country. Our Constitution protects the right to protest, peacefully and unarmed, as well as the right to be free from all forms of violence.  So it has been a bittersweet week.

CALS would like to particularly commend the Wits students and their leaders, who for the most part have demonstrated unity and a strong ethic of non-violence throughout. We support the vision of a society where race, class and gender are not barriers to accessing tertiary education. We understand that there is still much work to be done and we look forward to working with such passionate and talented young women and men to advance social justice at Wits, and from Wits, going forward.