#FeesMustFall book captures key moment in student politics

A colourful, retrospective, celebratory, sometimes jarring, but pertinent coffee table book, which captures the violent intensity of the 2015 #FeesMustFall student movement that shook South Africa, was released by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) in November.

#FeesMustFall and its Aftermath: Violence, wellbeing and the student movement in South Africa captures a turning point in student politics since democracy. This book focuses on violence and well-being in the context of the student movement, exploring themes such as youth, mental health, education, poverty and protests, admittedly all important topics. Still, according to the project lead, “they make the lived experience of the intersectionality of these shockingly present”.

One of the goals was to expose the unacceptably high levels of violence on university campuses and the impact this has on student well-being and to advocate for a more responsive higher education policy and leadership.

#FeesMustFall was a national student-led protest movement that began on 12 October 2015 to stop increases in student fees and push for an increase in government funding of universities.

Writing in the foreword of the book, Saleem Badat, a research professor at the Humanities Institute, University of KwaZulu-Natal, and a former vice-chancellor, says the book contains over 100 photographs, captions and narratives that arise from action research conducted with student leaders and activists on five university campuses that were involved in the 2015 and 2016 student protests.

Badat, formerly the director of the International Higher Education and Strategic Projects programme at the Andrew W Mellon Foundation in New York, encouraged project leader Professor Thierry M Luescher, the HSRC strategic lead for research on equitable education, Research Division: Inclusive Economic Development, to develop the project proposal.

Combining photography and social action

The universities of the Western Cape, Free State, Venda and Fort Hare, and the Durban University of Technology were selected deliberately to highlight students’ experiences at institutions that, unlike the universities of Cape Town and the Witwatersrand, were not in the limelight in 2015 and 2016 but whose experiences could be more representative of the sector.

The collection was brought together using a research method called ‘Rapid Photovoice’ – which combines photography and social action to tell a story and create awareness, while encouraging democracy. Students were encouraged to submit photographs that, in their view, best reflected their experiences of the violence that led to and occurred during the protests, and pictures that represented well-being resources that helped them to cope.

During the workshops, beginning in mid-2019 and continuing into the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in March 2020, the students presented and discussed their photos, captioned them and provided brief narratives to contextualise the images, reflecting on what they meant to them. The students’ work was also featured as exhibitions on university campuses for staff members, especially for Student Affairs practitioners and academics.

In 2021, the research team and some student participants classified many of the photographs, captions, and narratives from the five universities into various themes.

These themes include the context and reasons for protesting; students’ mobilisation for protest; protest itself; the state’s response to demonstrations; state violence; student well-being; and the well-being resources drawn upon by students.

As part of curating the book, the research team conceptualised and elaborated on these themes in more detail. In presenting the research to the scholarly community, policymakers, and the public in the form of a photo book, the goal is to raise awareness about the unacceptably high levels of violence on university campuses and its impact on student well-being.


According to Badat, the book features the reflections of 35 former student activists and student leaders from five universities without seeking to ‘balance’ them with the views of university leaders and managers, academics, other staff, and security personnel who were involved in the on-and off-campus contestations and conflict, providing an unadulterated and unique insight into their perspectives.

Fast forward to 2022. However, Badat concedes that a substantial improvement in opportunities and outcomes for black and predominantly rural, poor and working-class students remains elusive.

More worrying, Badat says that, by its admission, there is “inefficient use of the country’s resources” – according to the South African Department of Higher Education and Training.

“The state has failed to address dilemmas: its attempt to balance equity, quality and development imperatives has produced largely historical rectification for individuals rather than fundamental institutional structural transformation,” Badat writes.

Ironically, the release of #FeesMustFall and its Aftermath: Violence, wellbeing and the student movement in South Africa coincided with the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. The global campaign kicked off on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until December 10, the international Human Rights Day.

Luescher, the adjunct professor: Chair for Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation at Nelson Mandela University, was joined on the project team by Angelina Wilson Fadiji, Keamogetse G Morwe, Antonio Erasmus, Tshireletso S Letsoalo, and Seipati B Mokhema.

Research and publication were co-funded by the National Research Foundation and the Andrew W Mellon Foundation.

The HSRC Head of Education and Economics Research, Sharlene Swartz, an adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Fort Hare, says this book, in gut-wrenching acuity, has consciously foregrounded students’ experiences in South Africa in a significant era.

It has shown the effects of violence and has situated the violence experienced and committed by these individuals in the context of more significant social dynamics in South Africa.

However, she says, it has gone beyond a simple exposé to offering the many ways in which those at the receiving end of multiple forms of violence have tried to restore their own and others’ humanity and given acts of violence a more human face.