by Lerato Makate*
Preamble: In the last three weeks throughout the country, our institutions of higher learning saw an uprising of unparalleled proportions since the dawn of democracy. An uprising that I am surprised these institutions were not ready for, as students went on protest demanding a no increase on already expensive university fees in a developing country such as ours. As a member of the media I like others in my field found myself faced with covering this story as it unfolded, in my case right from the beginning when the initial rumbles of a shutdown at Wits University began on that fateful Wednesday the 14th October, and through its intensification as the week progressed. For those of us who were at the forefront of the coverage of this story a myriad of things began to happen inside of us, this article is a recounting of what happened inside me as I covered this story.
The heart feels heavy, very heavy. On any given day working in the field as a reporter is tough: it demands that one take a lot in, in terms of the facts and emotions of the story. It is tougher still when you work for a university radio station and you are hoping to cover events as they unfold, assisted by colleagues in training, my student volunteers, who themselves are part of the story.
You do this with a heavy heart, because you, like many other young professionals have the burden of a yet to be repaid National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) loan—for a four year undergraduate qualification, while your other two postgraduate qualifications were funded for by bursaries and student loans. Bursaries for which you had to write demeaning motivation letters: stating just how needy you were, and how little your parents could do for you by way of funding your education. Motivation letters that required that you paint magnificent pictures of what getting this education would mean for you, your family, and your community. Letters that demanded that you put your best foot forward and wax lyrical about just how brilliant you are, all in a bid to win at this bursary and funding ‘competition’ for which there are only a few spots available, which sadly is the way things work, right?
You tell yourself your circumstances are slightly better, after all your mother is a nurse, a public servant, at least she has a secure job, with a salary that covers, even if barely, your family’s needs. In spite of this, the word necessity is one you soon become familiar with, even as a child.
But you are still in a better-off position compared to your peers in your neighborhood, who every day you see giving up because of all the systemic odds stacked against them. You see them loose the resolve of “going against the grain” (also known as trying to work towards a better future). You see the fire to fight for their life and livelihoods die in them. You see them give up on trying one more time because they have just run out of both the physical and emotional strength to go through the rejection for the umpteenth time.
Not so for you! You after years of holding down an underpaying job and having incurred significant debt, temporarily give up your job to study even further in the hope that an improvement of your education would mean a better paying job. You do all of this self-improvement at the most basic level so that you are able to contribute to your sister’s, niece’s and nephew’s registration fees, books and accommodation costs, to whatever extent you can, and your family’s household costs too.; The so-called ‘black tax’, which you currently cover with some strategic planning and a lot debt. You become strategic so you can enjoy some semblance of a quality of life better than the generation before yours did, just like the protesting students are doing.
Walking in front of the students to capture the images, the songs, the signs of unity and power, you realize that in addition to covering the story, you too are part of it; you are here in the frontlines as both an independent observer and affected party. You are part of the students, you too want for fees to fall.
But in this job, factual information is critical; recounting the story as it happens is imperative, even as it gets too much to handle, you have to take it in and get on with it. This is more than theory, especially in the face of students’ resolve, who despite looking tired and emotional remained focused.
Their resolve at a personal level was a firm reminder of my own circumstances. In the coming year, I am yet again to embark on this business of self-improvement through education yet again, pursue my Masters degree in hope of better job opportunities to do meaningful work in impacting the lives of the most marginalized who are also the majority. Will I be able to afford to help three family members in university and college respectively, in their quest to continue to complete their own education, while they themselves carry the burden of a NSFAS loan? Oh and yes, will I be able to pay for my own minimum initial payment for my studies, as I wait for bursary outcomes and try to spread my Rand?
Pushing back the questions, again I am reminded that as a reporter, you take it in and get on with it. As you cover the story, know with a bleeding heart on which side of the sidelines you stand. While you may wear different hats, each with its own responsibilities, powers and burdens really, but ultimately you stand firmly with the students, as their fight against a fee increase, opening up a debate on the prospects of a more affordable, and even a free quality education, because, you are after all one of them!
*Lerato Makate is a default Joburger employed as a University Radio station Programming Manager. Her academic background is been in Media Studies, Media Management and and a Health Journalism Honours from University of the Witwatersrand and Rhodes University (South Africa). She prefers to be referred to as, and call herself, a radio junky. And she now trains student radio volunteers for industry. With an interest in the different facets of the media and how messages are received by audience and social issues, she’s soon to take up a Masters degree in Public Health; to look at how media and social behavioural campaigns can succeed or need to improve to be effective in preventive health policies in the country.