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Opinion: #FeesMustFall and international students

Mako Muzenda

The fight for free and quality education in South Africa is a cause I support wholeheartedly. For a country grappling with a history of inequality – specifically for black South Africans – free tertiary education is an important step in correcting the social and economic imbalances this country’s youth have inherited. However, when it comes to showing my support for my peers, I hesitate. Not due to a lack of understanding, but due to my sometimes precarious position as a foreign national in a South African university.

As a non-South African student, I understand while I may have knowledge of the country’s history and current socio-economic struggles, I will never completely understand it the way South African students do. I understand although I empathise with their struggles and frustrations, I will never really know their lived experiences. So when it comes to showing my support, I often fumble and stumble, trying to figure out how best to be part of the fight for free education, without overstepping my bounds and being arrogant enough to claim their lived experiences as my own. Social media has helped me contribute through tweeting and re-tweeting, but that often feels insufficient when people put themselves on the front-lines and in the streets, while I type away at my laptop.

However, when it comes to going out and joining the protesters, I halt. I admire the bravery and determination of every single student and member of staff that has marched, but I can’t join them for fear of losing my visa. It is a deep and genuine fear. The fear I lose my study permit, a permit I queued for weeks to get, and the fear I’m forced to leave South Africa and may never be able to come back. It’s an understandable yet frustrating fear. You feel helpless when you see your friends and classmates getting shot at by the police. You feel useless when you see them getting dragged to police vans and thrown in jail, because no matter how fiercely the desire to contribute burns, you have to sit and stay away from it all.

For international students, our perceived inaction on FeesMustFall is not disinterest or apathy. We support the fight for free and quality education. We support transformation and efforts to correct historical inequalities. We’re angered and hurt at how our fellow students have been treated and criminalised. Our status as foreign nationals often prevents us from joining the fight on the ground, and we may not always know how we can contribute without invasive, but we do care. And know that in whatever way we can, we fight with you.


An International Student at UCKAR.

Image taken by Jomiro Eming

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