The author argues that the film does not tell the whole story of the #FeesMustFall movement, especially how the fight for free, quality higher education had long been waged at historically black campuses.
Award-winning political documentary film-maker, Rehad Desai’s latest film offering is the third in his trilogy of political commentary on contemporary South Africa after “Miners Shot Down” and “The Giant is Falling”. Everything Must Fall, focuses on the student uprisings and protests associated with the #FeesMustFall movement that emerged in 2015 in response to the announcements by various university managements of fee increases.
The title of the film invites an expectation that the film covers the full extent of the student protest movement of the period but instead mainly focuses on the struggles at Wits University and their issues with limited exploration of student struggles at other campuses. Excluded from the film are the struggles of historically black universities and others that are attended by predominantly working class students who have been fighting for over a decade against high student fees and access, language policy and for better accommodation and food.
As a left-wing filmmaker, this narrow middle class portrayal of the #FeesMust Fall movement of Desai’s is disappointing. In doing so, he has inadvertently marginalised those working class student struggles just like the mainstream media has done. In fact, some have argued that had it not been for mass student protests at historically white ruling class universities like Wits and UCT, the movement would not have received as much media attention as it did.
Consequently, the main interviewees are middle class Wits University student leaders who simply tell of their experiences – their highlights and disappointments and contrasting perspectives to other protagonist such as the vice-chancellor and their confrontations with repression.
Nevertheless, even within the limited scope of Wits University the film adds very little to what observers would already know and fails to explore the politics and contradictions with any depth. This despite there being several of interest that could have enhanced our understanding of the struggle, the role-players and the movement.
It starts off well by setting up the historical background to Wits University – its role as a centre of learning for the White upper classes to prepare them for roles in the colonial and later Apartheid capitalist setting. It also covers anti-Apartheid protests at the university and in this way illustrating historical continuity. It also sets up a central role-player and character in the form of former anti-Apartheid activist and now university Vice-Chancellor, Adam Habib, who attempts to convince us that he remains committed to progressive political and educational ideals. The contradiction between his claimed credentials and actual role in leading and maintaining neo-liberal attacks on the students and university workers is not fully explored or exposed. He is not confronted with the reality of his role in violent repression of the movement – to the extent of militarising the campus.
Similarly, the main interviewees, the Wits student leadership are not confronted with their contradictory roles of, on one hand, leading struggles around students’ demands but at the same time being members and supporters of the ruling party in government, the ANC. We see instances of this that are not fully explored, like their differences around whether ANC Secretary General at the time, Gwede Mantashe, should sit down while students speak and admonish him in front of Luthuli House. Other major social and political issues are also thrown in hazily but not fully explored, like the battle around recognising black feminist and lesbian women and their struggle against patriarchy at the university and within the movement itself.
Even within its narrow focus, the film could also have explored the collapse of the movement after the big student march and rally at the Union Buildings, which forced government’s concession to cancel fee increases. All we get are instances of a minority of hard line students continuing the struggle, including in support of insourcing of university workers’ employment. But the main interviewees are not confronted as to why they abandoned the struggle and whether they would continue to fight for free quality education for all. This was, in fact, a major political shortcoming of the #FeesMust Fall movement in 2015–2016: namely, their refusal to link up with other education struggles and issues in solidarity with parents and students from secondary and lower level schools.
Unlike the education struggles of the 1980s, led by the Education Crisis Committee affiliated to the United Democratic Front (UDF), there was no attempt by the FMF movement to broaden itself to become a mass working class-led movement to address our current crisis in education. Desai chose not to use the opportunity to explore these and other important issues, limiting its historical political value. This is its downfall.