Why did there appear to be such broad sympathy and support for the student cause?

On the first night of the Jewish Passover festival, to commemorate the exodus from enslavement in Pharaoh’s Egypt over 5 700 years ago, a famous question is raised.

The youngest person at the dinner (seder) table traditionally asks:
“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

With adaption, the same question could be asked of the extraordinary events around last week’s #Fees Must Fall protest campaign and its immediate, and rather stunning, results.

Why did this campaign and protest, by no means the largest and certainly not the most violent in recent times, capture both the immediate attention and resolve of an often inattentive president and government?

Why did there appear to be such broad sympathy and support for the student cause, across the normal boundaries of race, class and generation in this case?

Why did the students succeed with their core demand within forty eight hours after storming parliament, when so many other broad based campaigns and protests yield few immediate results, if any at all ?

The e-tolls campaign, for example, drew thousands but hardly attracted a sharp response from government and eventually received patchy response years later and only after several high profile court cases.

The recent multi-organisational marches against corruption went to the same addresses as the Fees Must Fall protests –Parliament and the Union Buildings, but drew comparatively small numbers, encountered no heavy-handed police response and was shrugged off with indifference(or at least with clichés) by government.

Yet, a student protest movement, seemingly without high profile leadership and with almost combustible efficiency and reach, galvanised both a nation and its leadership in perhaps a way no other protest or cause has managed these past two decades.

South Africa is hardly alone in being home to student discontent. Chile has been embroiled in students campaigning for free university education for the past five years. Two weeks ago, protesting junior doctors brought central London to a standstill. The Occupy Wall Street movement in the US was an attempt to reactivate the spirit of student unrest which in 1968 galvanised the campuses and effectively forced Lyndon Johnson from standing again as president . But in all these places the status quo has more or less stood.

It’s way too early to tell whether last week’s events here will signal a new responsiveness and consciousness and a radical change in things or simply were a blip on the national radar.

And instead of quitting while ahead and celebrating a famous victory, there are some signs on some campuses that the protestors will overreach and start to alienate key stakeholders and sympathisers.

I think one of several key factors which allowed both momentum and mobilisation last week was the simplicity and almost single item effectiveness of the student cause. Of course there were other, longer smouldering issues behind the protests. But #Fees Must Fall was something which appealed to the widest swathe of society. It also helped focus attention on their cause, when the students turned their ire from the campus administrations towards the centres of power in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Pretoria. And given the presence of so many universities in each place, they had a huge pool of recruits.

Then there was, in our hyper-racialised and partisan society, the rarest of moments in this country: a national protest which created a common interest between all students, black and white, ANC, DA and EFF and others of no fixed party abode.

In contrast, two other recent student protests, Rhodes Must Fall and Open Stellenbosch, whatever their intrinsic merits or demerits, communicated black angst against a white status quo, rather than a common cause banner under which all students of all races could gather.

And since so often parents are either struggling to meet the fees payments or have invested all their hopes in the student son or daughter as providing a ladder out of family poverty, it’s not hard to see the sympathy crossing the generations.

Then of course it was the fact that it was the student generation themselves marching in unison which seemed to compel government attention in a way that middle class motorists and do-gooding churchmen could not.
June 16 is etched on national consciousness and is now commemorated as Youth Day.

Back in 1976, school children in Soweto, to the surprise of both the ANC in exile and the iron-fisted National Party government at home, took on the might of the state.

Their initial cause was both just and simple: the demand not to be taught in Afrikaans, a language seen with good cause back then as oppressive and stamping a badge of further inferiority on Bantu education pupils. Of course that single issue came atop a welter of other simmering discontents, but it was the match that lit the flame

Because Soweto 1976 is widely remembered as the children leading the revolution and the oppressive force with which John Vorster’s government responded, it is easy to forget a key fact. Several months after the first wave of protest, and after much loss of life, the National Party hard line deputy minister AP Treurnicht capitulated to the student demand on Afrikaans. That was the first ever concession the NP had made to the forces of protest.

But that single swallow hardly heralded a summer of democratic blooming. It took more than another decade and a half for the wider agenda of change to be implemented.

The image last week of students surging again through the barricades of power into the heart of government likely drew an uncomfortable parallel in the minds of current leadership and forced its hand.

To head this off on Friday, government raided (or, more accurately, is now trying to figure out which account to raid) an empty fiscal larder. This met the concession which Jacob Zuma granted with such speed. Perhaps, though, pause and offer his government if not your sympathy, then at least some understanding.

After all, if fees fell so quickly –or in truth were not raised –what’s next to fall and who is going to pay for it, and where’s the money for it?