Nelson Mandela University (Port Elizabeth)

We are greeted warmly and with enthusiasm by a room full of colleagues upon our arrival at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

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Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) was formed in 2005 through the merger of the Port Elizabeth Technikon and the University of Port Elizabeth.  It now serves as a comprehensive university, offering both professional and technical training.  We have the opportunity to speak informally with staff members from several student service units prior to formal addresses by three members of the NMMU community.

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Thanduxolo Nkola, a former NMMU student and himself a leader of #feesmustfall protests on campus last year, shares his perspectives of the movement, its purpose, and his experiences during and since.  He emphasizes the movement is not just about money, but rather about a higher education system that is not intended for all.  Nkola describes what he called “soft barriers” such as images, language, curriculum, as well as structural exclusion.

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Dr. Andre Keet, an expert on reconciliation and justice, helps us frame our thinking about the movement by suggesting we consider the student protests not just as events, but as part of a broader university change process.  He also reinforces the comments by Mr. Nkola that the existing issues are not just socioeconomic in nature, reminding us that in the timeline of student protests cultural issues came before financial issues — Rhodes before fees.

After our meeting, we enjoy a tour of campus.

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Nelson Mandela University

Our visit to Nelson Mandela University was one of the few visits where the hosting staff dispersed across the room for a more even distribution of UM and NMU folks. It felt much more collaborative compared to the visits that were presentation style. I had hoped for more space for conversation but the NMU staff helped to get most of the questions answered in a room with so many people.

There was a student who spoke about his experiences with the protests. He spoke with such clarity and passion about what the protests meant and why they needed to happen. I believe he was the only person we met who responded to why the students felt the need to shut down the campus. Students who were most affected were the students who spent extra time to organize and strategize while students were not affected, and most privileged already, were able to continue their studies and social lives as they always had. Once you hear that you categorize it as the obvious, but to hear the student say it himself was piercing.

I asked the student a question about whether he felt supported by the staff and faculty. He very bluntly said, “No”. I debated whether to ask the question or not given the room had staff and faculty present but figured he could choose to answer if he wanted (we wrote our questions on paper provided to us and student volunteers collected them). I was surprised to hear him answer the question and with such confidence. I watched as some of the staff and faculty shifted in their seats when he gave his simple “No”. I approached him afterward and thanked him for answering my question, that it must not have been easy. He said it wasn’t but these things need to be done.

I won’t soon forget that visit.

–Victoria Loong, master’ student