Interview with Fasiha Hassan, South African Student Movement Leader
Fasiha Hassan, the South African student leader featured in Everything Must Fall, is one of the festival guests, and we had a chat with her about the movement, and her being awarded the International Student’s Prize of 2019.
During this excellent and insightful week, we have delved into different complex human rights issues from around the world. It has challenged audiences to recognise issues larger than those existing within their individual societies, and ask new questions about the world that we live in. One film that has captured this purpose in its essence is Everything Must Fall.
Directed by Rehad Desai, a South African director and producer, this film explores the Fees Must Fall movement within South African universities. Starting at Wits University in Johannesburg in October 2015, the movement began after a group of students at the university recognised great inequality and inaccessibility to higher and complete education for poorer students – who tend to be mainly students of colour, especially black students – due to the rising fees within South African universities each year, which itself was and is due to the lack of government funding the universities receive.
This week, we sat with one of the movement leaders at Wits, Fasiha Hassan, for an interview, in which she reflected on the Fees Must Fall movement from a personal perspective, also shedding light on the current status of the movement, and where it is headed. We also spoke about the upcoming presentation of the Student’s Peace Prize, of which she is the 2019 Laureate.
When did you first get involved with the #FeesMustFall movement, and what was your main motivation for doing so?
Fasiha: I first got involved in student activism around 2013/2014. It started off with the Palestinian solidarity work – I’m still very involved in that – but that was my initial entry. I also got very involved with, interestingly enough, the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) and I became the first woman chairperson of the organisation. I really found that was a baptism of fire, but it made me the person that I am today, and it made me very strong. Through that, I got very involved with what we call the Progressive Youth Alliance at Wits, which is basically a network of student organisations: the Young Communist League, the South African Students’ Congress and MSA. We decided that we wanted to run for Student Representative Council (SRC). We ended up getting in, and we started to get involved with helping students. I was the Academic Officer, and we encountered a lot of exclusion of students. Students would come to us and say, ‘we can’t afford fees, we’re going to get kicked out of university residence’. So, at the beginning of 2015, the next year, we started a fundraising campaign because a lot of students were told they were going to get funding, but they received none. There were about a thousand students who were about to get excluded because there was no money, and no one wanted to deal with it. We raised about four million rand (almost 2.5 million kr) and we paid off a lot of these students’ debt. Now, that’s 2015. Fast-forward a little bit, and we find that they want to increase fees by beyond what they need. That’s when we essentially start Fees Must Fall, on the 14th of October 2015. But we never intended to create what we did. It was very organic, it happened as we went.
Following on from that, how did your involvement in Everything Must Fall come about and how did the film impact on your activism and the reach of your campaign?
Fasiha: When Rehad Desai, the filmmaker, wanted to make the film, he naturally chose some of the leaders. There has to be a narrative and a face to a film, so despite the fact that there was a very flat structure, and it was a very mass-based movement, he chose a few of us to speak about the movement.
The film actually came a bit later. Fees Must Fall had an international reach before the film was created, not just within South Africa, but across the world. We saw students in Zimbabwe; we saw students throughout Africa, Brazil, in the UK we saw decolonising, Rhodes Must Fall. What led me to Norway was the Student Peace Prize, which I was very lucky to be the Laureate of, which has put a lot of focus on the South African Higher Education system. I think to see international recognition of it is also very important. It gives you bargaining power. Hopefully people will have a better understanding of what Post-Apartheid South Africa looks like.
You mentioned the Student’s Peace Prize. How did that came about, you being the 2019 Laureate?
Fasiha: They had been monitoring a lot of the work around Fees Must Fall in South Africa, but also the work I was doing – because I’m also the Deputy President of the National Student Union in South Africa – and the last year and a half we’ve done a lot of work with the government, around sustainability, around ‘what does this free education look like?’ How do we make it a long-term project? But it’s more about the work around access to higher education. And it’s been very interesting to be in Norway, because the education system here is a very good one, but it’s not something I can copy-and-paste back home. At the same time, there are so many ‘best practice’ ideas that could work. And it was so nice to see a functioning model, in which students can just get access, you could just walk into a university if you have the academic marks, and that’s not something we’re used to. It also gives hope to know that Norwegian students are willing to collaborate, and to know that all these organisations are willing to help out.
The #FMF movement had a great impact on SA and you and took its reach much further. Despite all this, I would assume that there are still issues to be dealt with as well as fallout from the protests led by students of colour. Could you highlight some of these issues for us?
Fasiha: Despite the fact that we have had huge victories with the former President announcing in 2017 basically the out-rolling of free education, we’ve had issues surrounding the implementation of it. He announced in December and said it would be implemented in February, which is a crisis! Because there was no time for the administrative powers to be ready for it. And, as a result, last year the structure that was already problematic – already about to collapse – collapsed anyway. But recently, as in two or three weeks ago, we saw some student protests in South Africa, because a lot of students were prevented from registering even though they fall within that low income group. It does represent progress, but it does mean we can’t let our guards down. And a lot of people think that, just because there was an announcement, that the movement is over. I really want to dispel that notion. The other big thing that we are also working on, which has been a huge cause of division in the movement, is amnesty for Fees Must Fall activists. There’s one student in jail. Various others are undergoing court processes, so we’re pushing for an appeal for the student who’s in jail. And, of course, the fight for decolonisation is a long-term fight, on different levels. We see a huge development of young people who are taking up different elements. We saw girls at high school rejecting hair policies, the notion that their hair is not neat because it’s in an afro, when schools aren’t doing the same for girls with straight hair. So, it’s such an exciting time to be a young South African, to see young South Africans who were born post-Apartheid. What we have successfully done is reignite the fire, and I hope it lasts. I hope it spreads into other sectors of society. There’s no guarantee but at least we did something.
Lastly, you’ve already spoken about the activist that is still in jail, still facing some charges. Is there anything that you’re working towards or doing currently that you would like to mention?
Fasiha: I want to reemphasise that there were many sacrifices that students made. Putting their bodies on the line, putting their futures on the line. The student who is in jail has had his future ripped from him, and so to understand that, as much as it looks good now, it didn’t come without sacrifice. So, we need to appeal it. We need to push hard for him to, not just walk free, but to still have a future.
We don’t have the luxury anymore of operating in silence, especially not as young people. I can’t just be working in South Africa, and others here in Norway. The world is changing. We’re seeing this rise of very conservative governments with very nationalistic and very fascist agendas. And we’re going to be called off guard if we don’t do something about it. Especially as people of colour, as women! Let’s all get involved. Whether you’re good at media or graphic design, whatever it is, we need that in all forms of skills and movement.