Young people celebrate as fallists head to parliament

Former Wits SRC president and Fees Must Fall leader Nompendulo Mkhatshwa is one of the 20% youth on the ANC's candidates lists for the election. Picture: Marco Longari

Former Wits SRC president and Fees Must Fall leader Nompendulo Mkhatshwa is one of the 20% youth on the ANC's candidates lists for the election. Picture: Marco Longari

A number of faces that were at the forefront of the nationwide fight for free education will take on new roles as MPs.

While young South African people continue to face accusations of being politically apathetic, four faces that were at the forefront of the Fees Must Fall movement will be headed to the National Assembly to serve as members of parliament in the sixth administration come 22 May.

#FeesMustFall (which is often stylized as a Twitter hashtag) was a student-led protest movement that began in mid-October 2015 in South Africa.

The main goals of the movement were to arrest the annual increases in tertiary fees and to increase government funding of universities in order to subsidize the costs passed down to students.

The then leaders of various student organizations became the de facto faces of the movement given that they were elected to represent various voices in official negotiations and arbitrations with those in power.

Their names were Nompendulo Mkhatshwa, Vuyani Pambo, Mcebo Dlamini and Shaeera Kalla.

Given the prominence these student leaders were burdened with at the height of the movement, a lot of assumptions were shared about the trajectory of their political careers both in mainstream media and social media.

The prominence these student leaders were afforded also caused some tension among various student factions who felt that the movement should be faceless.

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Fast forward to 2019 and only two of the fantastic four will become MPs when the National Assembly convenes later this month.

Nompendulo Mkhatshwa and Vuyani Pambo will be joined by Naledi Chirwa and Peter Keetse, who were handed the baton in the fight for free education and continued it long after the spotlight had fallen on other topics in the news cycle.

The 26-year-old Mkhatshwa featured prominently in many of the imagery that has now become synonymous with the movement, donning her signature ANC doek with her fist in the air. Because of that, she was dubbed Fees Must Fall’s “media darling.”

At the time, she was studying towards a BSc at the University of the Witwatersrand and she was the leader of the institution’s students’ representative council (SRC). She has also previously worked part-time as a researcher at Luthuli House.

According to a Mail & Guardian profile on Mkhatshwa, during the height of the movement, she made the conscious decision to take a step back so as not to let her growing celebrity status get in the way of the work of the movement.

Many had thought she had faded into obscurity but perhaps all eyes will be on her once again as she takes on her new role.

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One activist who would not fade into the background is University of Pretoria’s Naledi Chirwa, who is a proud member of the EFF.

Her academic journey suffered a major setback as her activism earned her a suspension.

“I have been on suspension at the University of Pretoria [UP] for two years now. I could have been graduating in April. I am now in the process of getting myself registered at Wits for my master’s in drama and film studies. However, the process is taking long so I don’t know whether it is because of my [suspension],” said Chirwa in a 2018 interview with the Sowetan.

During that time, however, Chirwa has not stopped moving and working. She found her footing as a critical voice in many of the news cycle’s most pivotal issues and often found herself as a guest of various shows.

Thanks to the work she has done on the ground, the 26-year-old can now add the title of MP to her resume.

Joining Chirwa on the EFF ticket are 30-year-old Pambo and 27-year-old Keetse.

Pambo has been nicknamed “Mr Free Decolonised Education” after he made headlines last year for using his time on stage at the 12th annual South African Film and Television Awards to campaign for the EFF.

Television documentary Everything Must Fall by Uhuru productions won the best documentary feature golden horn and it was Pambo who made his way to stage to collect the award.

Pambo said he was there to accept the award on behalf of all those who’d advocated for free decolonised education. He mentioned Khaya Cekeshe, Mlungisi Madonsela and Katlego Monareng, who’d all advocated for “free decolonised quality education”.

He also dedicated the award win to the children of the mine workers who’d died during the Marikana massacre. Pambo took a jab at Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa by saying that those children would soon obtain free quality decolonised education, under the leadership of the EFF. In closing he urged people to vote for the EFF.

Keetse’s most public stunt to date has been placing rats at the feet of the popular Mandela statue at Sandton City’s Mandela Square.

Speaking to Times Live, the leader of the EFF’s student command explained the symbolism of his protest.

“We have long diagnosed issues of the people of Alexandra. There was one incident that happened where a child was eaten by rats. The story was there but nothing was done for the people of Alexandra and their conditions.”

Keetse, who has been a member of the EFF since its inception, spoke about his new role as though he had always known it would happen.

“We knew from the beginning, because we have long diagnosed that nothing must ever be said about us [students] without us,” he told the publication in a separate interview.

Young people across South Africa have taken to social media to rejoice in the appointment of these young leaders, with Chirwa being among the frontrunners in this public show of support.

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