Remembering Brian Matyila, Fees Must Fall Young Lion


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When you meet your heroes, you wonder what they will be like in person. When they are really as special as they seemed from afar, that’s inspirational. When your heroes are younger than you, it’s a whole another thing.

I met Maliviwe Brian Matyila, a 22 year old South African activist of the Fees Must Fall movement, at a gathering of the Fight Inequality Alliance in South Africa. Fees Must Fall is, as Brian put it, “a group of South African University students who are mobilizing broader society to call an end to commodification of education as this further broadens inequality in society in a country that has one of the most unequal societies in the world.” What more formalised organised civil society had failed to do – challenge the South African government on inequality, mobilise in large numbers, and win some real victories – had been managed by a group of young people who had had to learn campaigning, and go to school, while doing it.

I listened in rapt attention to a young man who had taken on such responsibility, and finally asked him, “is it difficult?” “Yes,” he said. “Being a student who could get thrown out for activism can make it hard for family. The pressure from authorities, too. The repression. Being black in university is anyway a pressure. And being a young gay man too.”

Brian was a young man who, like his comrades, took huge responsibility on his shoulders, carrying the burden of centuries of injustice and putting himself on the line. He and his comrades were tough and challenging – much less indulgent of whites who tried to steer direction than earlier generations had been. He was bold, fearless, and deeply serious. He was also huge fun – and his conversation would flit from detailed discussions of policy and reflections on political theory to joking about the troubles of dating. He and his Fees Must Fall comrade Lesedi found themselves in different camps of South African politics but remained wonderful and supportive friends. Here is Brian and friends signing the beautiful anthem, Nkosi Sikel ‘iAfrika;

And now he has passed. He will go down not only as a future leader that has been lost but also as a leader that already was. I feel so fortunate to have known him. I hope he will one day be in books about politics and history.

As I went through our old facebook messenger conversations I found an interview we did that I planned to publish as a part of a series. Now it stands on it’s own. Here is what Brian told me.

How would you describe in a sentence or two the current state of your struggle?

The movement has gained a lot of traction in society, we are now in the process of educating everyone on the pillars of the movement and ensuring that we build a movement that is grassroots based and consolidated nationally.

What motivates you personally? 

I am motivated by my own personal sufferings. I look at my family, being the only one in my family who is in University and how education is still seen as a privilege whereas it should be regarded as a basic right. I wake up everyday praying to work hard to ensure that more rural, black kids like myself have access to education.

What are the hardest times, and how do you deal with them?

The State has responded to our cries with repressive and oppressive methods with arrests, rubber bullets and intimidation being a daily experience in our spaces. I think some of the hardest times for us is when we time and time again find one of us being sent to prisons with bail being denied. We gain strength from the support we give to each other and more especially the support we receive from the elderly and international allies.

What do you have to face in terms of resistance by the powerful?

The repression that our movement has received from the State and our Universities in enormous. It often feels like the State has brought back apartheid security tactics to silence us. It frustrates us to see that the very same government we voted for and see as a democratic government time and time again refuses to listen to its youth but chooses to imprison, intimidate and “deal with”

How would you describe public opinion in relation to your activism? How do your families relate to your activism? What are the misconception and how do you counter them?

The general public initially failed to understand FeesMustFall as a movement that includes all, including those who are outside of the University space. It has taken a lot of community engagements and education for us to correct this perception and we are now seeing more and more community based movements, trade unions, religious groupings and other members of civil society coming together to not only pledge support but recognize themselves as an integral part of the movement. Families tend to be skeptical of our involvement in the movement as they fear their children being victimized by the state as they have seen the extents in which the state has adopted to silence us. The greatest misconceptions about the movement in the public’s eye are around the violence that has played itself out in the eyes of the public in our protests. This violence is usually as a result of private security and police literally beating protesters and being physically abusive, Media has a number of failed to report these incidents factually.

How best can you inspire more people to join you?

The simplest form of inspiring people to join us is by explaining how expensive University fees affect all parts of society and how these fees hinder a lot of people with great potential from accessing education leaving the have nots poorer while those who already have grow their knowledge and wealth.

Describe how it was to meet activists fighting inequality from Tunisia and Brazil and elsewhere? What do you see as the commonalities of the experiences and struggles in different places?

Meeting activists from other parts of the words was truly inspiring for us. We tend to be too invested in our struggles and we end up failing to realize that there are other people who face as much hardships and struggles as you do. There was a great lot to learn from each other and we learnt the importance of connecting with others and learning from each other because indeed it is true that in unity we are much stronger.

What would success look like in the short and long term? 

In the short them success for us would be unconditional access to higher education of all who are academically deserving without any financial burdens and in the long term it would be a decommodified, afrocentric education that seeks to service the youth of South Africa.

What has been the most important thing you’ve learned after becoming an activist?

I have learnt that inequality is a reality and we must all do our utmost best to fight inequality.

Hamba Kahle Brian. Go well. In the so many others you have inspired, you live on.

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Ben Phillips

About Ben Phillips

Ben Phillips, currently based in Nairobi, is co-founder of the #FightInequality alliance, the growing movement for a more equal world. He has lived and worked in four continents and a dozen cities, and led programmes and campaigns teams in Oxfam, ActionAid, Save the Children, the Children's Society, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty and the Global Campaign for Education. He began his development work at the grassroots, as a teacher and ANC activist living in Mamelodi township, South Africa, in 1994, just after the end of apartheid. All his posts are personal reflections. He tweets at @benphillips76