This article appeared on the News24 news site of 19 February 2017.
When 24-year-old Nathi Dwayi was accepted to study law at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), he knew what he wanted to do with his education – contribute to the fight for social justice.
Being at NMMU presented him with the opportunity to develop his leadership skills while taking up that fight. He has always wanted to get involved in projects that would empower citizens over a long period.
“I have always had an appetite to be involved in community issues and to lead social activism,” explained Dwayi. “Unfortunately, most community projects are just there to appease the consciences of those who don’t want to feel guilty about their privilege.”
The most notable recognition of his leadership qualities came when he was elected national president of the Black Lawyers’ Association Student Chapter. He’s also a former law faculty representative on the Students’ Representative Council and a previous chairperson of the Black Lawyers’ Association NMMU Student Chapter.
Dwayi is about to start a Master of Laws (LLM) degree at NMMU. He also read for his undergraduate and Bachelor of Laws degrees at that institution.
During his matriculation year Dwayi applied to Rhodes University, University of the Witwatersrand, University of Cape Town and NMMU. Like many high school pupils in small towns, he wanted to move to the bigger cities. But it was not to be.
“NMMU is the only university that ended up taking me because of what I presented myself to be, be it matric results or otherwise,” he said. “In retrospect, I have no regret being here because the opportunities and growth I have managed to achieve are much more than I would have somewhere else.”
Dwayi was also part of a group of students who staged the NMMU leg of the 2015 #FeesMustFall protest.
“I was one of the few who barricaded the university then,” said Dwayi. “In fact, my involvement has always been at the forefront, not because students elected us, but because of commitment.”
When the 2016 protest started, Dwayi was not only a seasoned campaigner but he was also at the forefront of the protest. Although he has been one of the leaders of this campaign at NMMU, he is one of the few leaders who were not arrested. He maintains that the reason for this is his respect for the rule of law.
“Obviously my involvement cannot undermine or infringe the law. Within the legal confines provided, I have the right to partake in protest and I will do so this year as well,” he said.
His willingness to participate in the protest this year is a response to his detractors (fellow comrades) who were quick to point out that the student assistantship, which accompanies his registration to read for an LLM degree, was a ploy by the university to weaken the movement.
The biggest success of the #FeesMustFall protest, according to Dwayi, has been making the community at large conscious of how university fees are a barrier for many students. It is his hope that everyone will eventually come to the party.
“The call for free education should not be a call that is only fought by students; parents must be involved and the working class must also be involved,” he said. “The university itself must be involved in the cause.”
When the negotiations between student protesters and NMMU were deadlocked last year, some parents took the university to court to force it to get an interdict against protesters in order for teaching and learning to continue.
“They [parents] must question themselves why they are divided on this matter, why white parents and black parents are divided in terms of their position in #FeesMustFall,” said Dwayi. “It is because of the economic situation of this country that poverty has a black face and prosperity has a white face.”
Though a legal scholar himself, Dwayi does not believe bringing the police to campus is a solution to student protest. He believes that police presence escalates violence.
“We are saying to parents that the court approach is not assisting because it seeks to intervene in a violent manner, because once an interdict is granted it means that no protest can happen and it creates avenues for police to be on campus,” he said. “Instead of wasting resources by paying legal representatives to go to court, invest that money towards a call for free education.”
It is Dwayi’s hope that the #FeesMustFall protest will eventually unite the country into a common struggle and pave the way for collectively tackling other societal issues for the betterment of South Africa.
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