Providing a stable and comfortable home for your children is every parent’s dream, but for many years, that was something that Taneka Kahilia Malone was not able to do for her children. Born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the United States, the mum of six went through a most challenging period in her life. Heartbreaking as the experience was, read on to find out how Neka and her kids managed to get through some of life’s greatest challenges.
What motivated your decision to study Psychology at university?
I studied in Dallas Texas, and I was very intrigued with how the mind works and the behavior of people. My mission in life is to help people heal from past challenges and struggles, and identify with who they are.
Around 2011, as a single mother of five boys and one girl living in Dallas, Texas, you went through a lot of challenges, the biggest one being homelessness. Can you briefly tell us about those challenges which you faced? What led to you becoming homeless?
Watching my children make pallets on people’s floors was heartbreaking for me. I used that pain to push myself to become financially stable. I was wrongfully convicted of a felony in 2006, which put a huge strain on me professionally, hence I was not able to find sustainable income. I was forced to take jobs that did not pay me enough to maintain housing.
What gave you the strength to get up each day and do odd jobs, while also continuing to look for better jobs to look after your children?
My children were my motivation, the fact that they smiled and laughed through the storm. Some nights we stayed up all night just talking and thinking about the future, and that gave us all hope. My children managed to still graduate high school and build their athletic careers. It was imperative that I kept my faith and continued to rise, even if it was just a few steps at a time.
I can imagine that at times it got so difficult that so many things would go through your mind. Did you ever get angry at God during your lowest moments, and did you ever give up and think you would never get out of the misery?
I’m only human, and for a long time I thought I had angered God, and that God was not hearing my cry for help. I never stopped praying, and even with all the anger and resentment of life in my heart, I still prayed and believed that there had to be an opposite to my struggle. I even considered suicide once, and what stopped me was the thought of “Who will love my children unconditionally, and who will teach them the foundation of faith?” By God’s grace, I’m still here.
From moving across homeless shelters, motels, and friends and family’s places, sleeping on the floor and surviving on government support, what inspired all your children to stay in school, stay humble, stay smiling, and stay well-behaved and finish school?
They have never seen me give up in life. The countless sacrifices I made to make sure they attended school motivated them to want to provide a better life not only for themselves but for me also, and my children encouraged and motivated each other.
After moving back to Minnesota and staying with family for about a year, finally in July of 2017, your prayers were answered and you and your family got approved for a four-bedroomed family home. Reminiscing on everything you had been through, how did you and the kids feel when you first moved into your new home?
One word – Peaceful!!!
God has been gracious to you and your family, the kids finished school and now almost everyone has a place of their own. How does that make you feel?
As a mother of six, this parenting thing was not easy. I’m beyond proud that they have been taught that no matter the depth of the sea, keep swimming, because greater things lie ahead. I’m very much humbled and blessed, and the love and admiration my children and I have for each other is incredible. They are my biggest cheerleaders, as I am theirs.
You also co-authored two books, one of which made you an Amazon No.1 Best-Selling Author. Can you tell us about the books?
‘Echoes in the Darkness’ was a joint collaboration of women who are domestic violence survivors. Amazon Best-Seller ‘Women Who Inspire Greatness’ was targeted towards the youth, and young women in particular, to help them learn about different women who overcame various obstacles while building their careers. Both books allowed me to be authentic, genuine, motivational, and inspiring, and contributing to them was so much fun!
When was Fire on the Runway born, and what was the inspiration behind starting it?
I started the Traveling Fashion Production ‘Fire on the Runway’ in 2015. Our first show was in Dallas Texas, U.S. in 2016. After becoming triumphant over my journey of homelessness and joblessness, I felt I had a deeper calling, so I started my entrepreneurial journey in mid-2014. My family was led by my Aunt Liz Adams, and we started Diamond Girls Fashion, an online clothing store with a focus on providing nice affordable wear to women in the military.
Fire on the Runway has now grown internationally, and will be touring Africa with our ‘All Eyes on Us Fashion Tour #RefocusAfrica’.
What are your biggest achievements so far as CEO of Fire on the Runway?
Changing the lives of others around me, growing my brand internationally, and now owning an all-black organisation!
After all your kids had left home, you decided to move to Ghana. What made you decide to pack up all your belongings and move to West Africa?
I started visiting Ghana in April of 2018, and from the first day I fell in love with the culture. Later on learning about the growing economy here and opportunities to build several businesses was very interesting to me, so I stepped out on faith, and the rest is history!
In 2020 you started an online store. Can you tell us about your business and how it is doing?
The store is called Kahilia’s Kollection and we sell sophisticated everyday wear for women. A year later we are still maintaining and growing our clientele.
You’ve been in Ghana for nearly six months now. How is it going there, and is it everything you imagined it would be?
I totally love Ghana, there is a very peaceful vibe. It’s not what I imagined, to be honest, it’s more than I could have even thought of. The beauty of the country alone is captivating. One month after arriving I was appointed Social Media and Marketing Manager for the Tourism Society of Ghana, which for me was a huge accomplishment.
What are you enjoying most about being in Africa, which you could never get or experience in America?
Freedom! I do not feel afraid because of my skin colour. People respect you more, you’re acknowledged as a woman entrepreneur, not just being a black woman entrepreneur. I can’t leave out the food; my favorite is Jollof Rice and Groundnut Soup with Red Snapper fish.
In most countries in Africa, we take for granted that someone can own an all-black company or organisation, but in the United States that is such a big deal, and opportunities like that are celebrated. What is the significance to you of now owning an all-black organisation?
I feel very accomplished and honoured that I achieved something that most people in America can only dream of.
What are your plans for the next five to ten years?
I will continue building Fire on the Runway and writing books, including my own story in fullness. I also will develop a mentorship program for the youth who are interested in the fashion industry.
What would you say to a single mother who is facing similar challenges to those which you faced, and all hope seems lost to them?
Keep going, It’s all part of the process! Stay strong in faith, never give up, and remember you are doing your best. Remember to love you as well!
Connect with Neka through her Instagram, @fireontherunwayllc, or visit her website, www.fireontherunway.org.
Interviewed by Gugu Mpofu
Forbin Audrey Nene: @AsanteAfrikaMag #EverydaySheroes
I was raised by a single mother who made womanhood and motherhood look effortless and stress-free.
Celebrating Women’s History Month 2021
Meet Forbin Audrey Nene, a pristine example of versatility. A singer, songwriter and lover of all things artsy, who still finds the time somewhere in there to pursue a BSc. in Chemical Engineering at the Catholic University Institute of Buea. She takes the effect her music has on her listeners seriously, stating that she aims to, “provide a safe haven for her listeners”.
What is the hardest thing about being a woman?
I was raised by a single mother who made womanhood and motherhood look effortless and stress-free. Now that I am older and a bit wiser, I am starting to understand how much she must have had to deal with as she kept her head above rocky waters and raised me (Shout out to you mama, you’re amazing!).
Aside from having to survive a misogynistic and extremely sexist society where on most days total strangers, for some odd reason, feel entitled to your time and energy, I would say our own anatomy plays a big role in how uncomfortable being a woman can be. There is the effect of hormonal fluctuations due to our monthly cycles, and our bodies constantly evolving as we age and experience different things. Sometimes it feels like fighting the world while having to fight yourself as well. Women are literally superhumans just by existing.
What aspect of being a woman did you think was important when you were younger, only to disregard now?
I didn’t give much thought to becoming a woman when I was younger. I just knew I would grow up eventually, have boobs and wear makeup and fancy grown women clothes like I saw my aunties do. I soon realized that there was a lot more to becoming a woman than that. There were period cramps, stereotypes, childbirth, catcalls, harassment, relationships, setting boundaries, braving odds etc.
I think womanhood caught me off guard, and in fact, still does so every other day. I actually think it catches most women off guard. It’s a rough transition for some more than others, where one minute you’re everybody’s sweet little girl, and the next minute you’re just not anymore. You are grown up, setting goals for yourself, and getting your life together while working to create a pleasant enough present and future for yourself.
What advice do you wish was given to you earlier?
• “Say what you mean and mean what you say” There’s this misconception that a woman’s “no” really means “yes” or “ask louder” or “try harder”. I don’t agree with this narrative, and so I try to live up to my word as much as I can, and speak only when necessary. It’s a thing of self-respect and integrity for me.
• “Your life, body, and mind are yours. Don’t let anybody take them away from you” I wish I understood early enough the importance of setting boundaries and protecting my sanity jealously.
• “People come and go, and that is fine”. Over the years I have found myself holding on to situations, relationships and friendships that didn’t serve my greater good, till I learnt that it’s ok to move on.
According to Forbin, women are “strong, beautiful, life-giving, powerful, and inspirational beings. It is such a beautiful time to be alive as a young African woman.” And I couldn’t agree with her more.
Interviewed by Hazel Lifa
Dr. Ismail Badjie (Pharm.D) On His Career Choices, & The Birth of InnovaRx Global Health In The Gambia
The future is technology and health simply will not exist in the now and the future without it.
After working in the United States for a number of years and realising the difference that technology brought to the healthcare sector, Dr. Ismail Badjie was keen to take the knowledge he had acquired back to his home country. Having seen the dire necessity for innovative approaches to the delivery of healthcare in The Gambia, it soon became a dream of his to start a company which would serve as a bridge between modern healthcare solutions and affordable access locally, enabling wide-spread access to quality and affordable care to all Gambians and subsequently, to the surrounding West African Nations.
Read on to find out how the 35 year old Gambian national was able to make his dream a reality.
After graduating high school in The Gambia, you went on to do your undergraduate degree in Chemistry in the United States in Tennessee. Why did you choose to do chemistry, and what did you major in? Did you already know that you wanted to work in pharmaceuticals? What career options did you have in mind at the time?
Funny thing is, I left for Tennessee State University to study Civil Engineering, but changed my major two weeks into university. Science and Chemistry in particular always came easy to me in High School, and I had a healthy amount of curiosity in healthcare which led me in that direction. I felt Chemistry with a minor in biology was a great foundation degree for a profession in medicine, dentistry, pharmacy or science research.
I got exposed to the Doctor of Pharmacy program (PharmD) which immediately aligned with my desire to choose a career in a field with tremendous potential for impact, not only in the United States but also in Africa. The over-commercialization of pharmaceutical products in Africa has removed the emphasis on the clinical aspect of the field designed to be gatekeepers for the safe administration of medications to achieve positive health outcomes (which I was passionate about).
After graduating with your first degree, did you do a Master’s degree before going on to your Ph.D.?
Similar to many professional schools in the medical field, the Doctor of Pharmacy program is a 4-year program I transitioned into immediately after the completion of my Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry.
You then went on to do a Doctorate Degree in Pharmacy in Indiana, before going on to practice as a pharmacist in the US. Can you tell us briefly (in layman’s terms) what your Ph.D. work focused on?
Attending a Top ten PharmD program in the U.S at Purdue University (Indiana) truly enriched my career development and prepared me for a lifelong commitment to improving the lives of individuals. The Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) is a four-year professional degree. The classroom, lab, and experiential requirements provide students with the educational background to enter any field of pharmacy practice such as community pharmacy, academia, industry & manufacturing, nuclear pharmacy, hospital pharmacy and more specialized clinical pharmacy .
My four-year training included nuclear pharmacy training and elective specialization in organizational leadership and supervision. We leave the program with comprehensive knowledge on the origins and makeup of medication including the research on safety and efficacy that goes into the manufacturing and approval process to a more high-level clinical application and distribution of medication to elicit positive health outcomes. The full spectrum of skills gained allows PharmDs to be integral parts to a variety of industries.
What is the difference between someone who does an undergraduate degree in pharmacy and goes straight to practice, and someone in your position? What professional advantages do you have over that person?
The U.S no longer offers any undergraduate degree in Pharmacy. All programs now are designed as a Doctor of Pharmacy Degree that requires a 6 to 4 year commitment. This is something that separates the profession’s integration into the health ecosystem compared to other parts of the world.
One of the major professional advantages in a PharmD program is the focus on clinical expertise across diverse fields which counters the more traditional narrative of only being labeled as “dispenser”, “chemist” or “druggist”. I spent my entire final year of the PharmD program on clinical rotations working in the field across various specialties such as Infection Disease, Ambulatory Care, Community Practice, Pharmacy Compounding, medication safety, and hospital inpatient clinical care just to name a few.
Can you tell us about the birth of Innovarx Global Health (IGH); what inspired you to start such a company, and what products and services does InnovaRx provide?
Innovarx Global Health was formed to level the playing field in access to quality healthcare services in Africa. Being a Healthcare professional practicing in the United States gave me firsthand knowledge on how technology was transforming healthcare delivery, and how huge the disparity was between the west and the African continent.
My Grandmother died when she was 56 years old from complications of diabetes and hypertension, which robbed us (her grandkids) of so many memories and moments of joy. I truly believe her living in the Gambia with poor levels of access to quality healthcare should not have determined a lower life expectancy. That wasn’t only her reality but that of many of our loved ones on the continent who for decades, have faced significant challenges while simply seeking a better quality of life. We therefore built the company to provide basic preventative healthcare and disease stage management services while leveraging technology in point-of-care testing diagnostics, electronic health record system, and prescription medication processing to deliver customized care in the most convenient and affordable way.
Our flagship delivery service Wellness on Wheels (W.O.W) was designed as a logistics tool that removed barriers of transportation and from inception, allowed the company to deliver products and services bedside to people’s homes all over the country. I believe IGH has revolutionized the way people consume healthcare, where a patient who lives in the furthest part of the country (6 hours away) can have a loved one living abroad sponsor their care, and have the same medications in circulation in the U.S delivered at their doorstep. Our e-commerce platform has also allowed for over-the-counter medications, health and wellness products such as vitamins and supplements to be accessible to customers all over the world for purchase and delivery as early as a 60 mins turn around in most parts of Banjul.
You mentioned that while planning on the inception of the company, besides the experience gained from your own workplace, you also travelled around the world to see how different companies carried out the services that you wanted to provide. Which countries did you travel to, and what stood out for you, which you really wanted to emulate back home in The Gambia?
I realized early that doing market research only in The Gambia was inadequate to solidify an integrated matrix of healthcare solutions, so we set out to key countries such as India, Germany and UAE. India gave us valuable insights into understanding the generic drug global supply chain market and how much revenue the country was generating through medical tourism from Africa. Over a billion dollars leaves the continent every year because of medical tourism, which stems from a pervasive lack of trust in our health systems.
The amount of Indian medical professionals trained at the best universities who returned home to provide specialty care to their citizens also inspired me. UAE was a perfect example of a country that embraced innovation and technology to propel all sectors, especially healthcare. The ingenuity and value creation in the healthcare sector is something I definitely felt the continent was also fertile grounds for. From the offset, we were intentional about creating a global company with the best ideas, and chose Africa as our first market instead of creating another “Less than” or “African Version” of a healthcare company.
You started doing research for launching the company in 2015, but only started operating in The Gambia in 2019. Besides doing research, what other facets of the business were you working on and preparing for during those years?
Unfortunately, bureaucracy can always impede any process in Africa that requires licenses and necessary registrations to get up and running. The Company was operating as a consulting company while attacking the daunting task of raising capital to start a business in Africa. The small market size of the Gambia as a pilot country made seeking investment even more challenging, especially for a business model that was the first of its kind. Human capacity is also another obstacle that adds to the process. Finding the right talent to understand and execute the mission and vision of a company in Africa requires a level of patience and constant allocation of resources to train and recruit that we still go through.
How did it feel to finally see your dream of setting up a tech-based healthcare solutions company in West Africa come to life in 2019?
It’s truly something magical anytime you see ideas that were simply sticky notes in my apartment manifest into a fully functioning entity now serving thousands of people. The magic however is ever so fleeting, as the waves of interchanging emotions instill a constant measure of cautious optimism required to always maintain faith while having the discipline to confront our current reality at any point. Africa is not short of great ideas, the greatest challenge in creating a successful business always lies in the consistent execution of said ideas.
What challenges did you face whilst preparing to launch, and how did you overcome them?
I think a lot of the challenges faced pre-launch had mainly to do with raising capital and working through the bureaucratic process of getting legally registered. The former (Fundraising) is a never-ending process we are still working on. Remaining committed to our “WHY” and exercising patience through building relationships always helps navigate the ecosystem. Establishing the right local partnerships also help in the general process of planting some roots in the ground .
Most of the products sold at your pharmacy division are sourced in the United States. Do you face any obstacles in getting them to the Gambia, such as maybe high import duty?
Most of the obstacles result from high logistics costs, especially when using air freight options. The wave of COVID in 2020 when the country was shut down was especially a trying time for the company, having a nation of people depending on the company to source products while facing exorbitant shipping costs. The Government of the Gambia does provide some tax holidays which ease the burden on otherwise high import duties. Most of the costs arise from the product registration process mandated by the Nation’s Medicines Control Agency.
You stated that Sub-Saharan Africa has a pandemic of counterfeit medication which is a billion-dollar industry, and in West Africa, almost 20-30% of the medication is counterfeit. As a pharmaceuticals provider, how do you avoid sourcing counterfeit medication?
Our decision to source medications only from the U.S is mainly based on the safety net of minimum quality standards required by the FDA. I think the African market is yet to make demands for only medications with safety profiles fit for sale in western markets, a non-negotiable. With our quality control infrastructures not readily available, the U.S sourcing allows for a level of assurance being infused into all our products. I think the continent is making strides in building our manufacturing capacity which will change the dynamics of our sourcing in the near future. From a pharmacist’s perspective, we just need to ensure every product dispensed to African citizens would always be safe, effective and with equal clinical potency to deliver positive health outcomes.
Your main clients are the diasporans who buy medication and healthcare supplies online from you for their family members back home in The Gambia. What marketing mediums do you use to reach your target market?
Social Media has truly been a game-changer for us in terms of reaching our target customers who live abroad but sponsor their loved ones’ health care in the Gambia. The country saw over $500 Million in remittances in 2020 alone which truly creates a new definition of market size not limited to the feeble spending power in the country. Our active engagement with Gambians in the diaspora from day one has allowed them to align with our mission of providing the peace of mind they desperately seek when it comes to the health and wellbeing of loved ones. The novelty of our services also gives us the confidence that “Word of Mouth” marketing will always be the greatest avenue to slow and organic growth, especially in our infancy as a company.
As a tech-based company, how do you overcome ‘typically African’ problems such as inconsistent power supply and bad network connections?
Well from a balance sheet standpoint it just adds to the cost of doing business. Getting back-up systems for electricity and the internet is unavoidable, but we are much closer to cheaper and more stable systems today than we were decades ago. It just creates a scenario where your product may be years ahead of the market, but also goes back to building companies despite the challenges and not attenuating your idea because of the “Typical African” problems. The future is technology and health simply will not exist in the now and the future without it.
As the Gambia is a very small country, you are actually able to service and deliver products to your clients across the whole country from just your one branch, making you a leader in that category. How have your competitors reacted?
Good ideas that enter any market simply create tension. Every player in the market will have to make a decision whether to adapt or die. We tend not to focus on the reaction of competitors because our business model differs greatly from the status quo. Nonetheless, we welcome enhancements and innovations of their own, which will also add tremendous value and the customers will always benefit. It does not have to be only one solution. The market will always follow where the best value is created and executed consistently.
Has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your ability to import healthcare supplies from the United States?
I would like to believe the worst is behind us now, but absolutely. We went through a period where certain items like PPE, hand sanitizer, certain medications etc. were scarce, but we adapted accordingly. The company played a pivotal role in the country manufacturing hand sanitizers in-house, which allowed for great collaborations with the Ministry of Health and the Pharmacy Council of The Gambia. We have a great relationship with distributors free of middlemen, which always allows us to source products consistently.
You have in-house doctors that do consultations with patients, and you also do tele-medicine where patients can consult virtually with your team of specialist doctors who are abroad. How has this service been received by the locals? Are they embracing technology and jumping on board?
I think with most new technology you always have your early adopters that embrace the technology and receive it through the lens of the convenience it provides. The Telemedicine services was a timely intervention during the COVID peak which solidified its application as a healthcare solution of the future. So we still have some growth opportunities in adoption that will expand, especially with the key partnerships we have with specialty doctors all over the world.
You stated a very sad fact, that there are about 9000 Gambians to one doctor. Why do you think this is so, and is the government doing anything to curb the disparity?
A couple of factors come into play when analyzing the low physician density. Healthcare professionals struggle with some of the lowest wages in the region that provide little incentive to turn down opportunities to practice medicine in more advanced countries for more pay. The first intervention should focus on increasing doctor salaries and making a commitment to their continuous development.
I think the Government has made massive strides in sustaining a pipeline with the Nation’s Medical School, but with the number of years it takes to complete training and further specialization, only a seismic shift in reverse migration can fill the gap. This, however, necessitates technology as the only viable option short term of closing the gap. Embracing telehealth service can have an immediate and exponential impact especially in a country that does lack doctors but have an abundance of qualified nurses that are the bedrock of most health systems in the country.
You are already doing an amazing job providing easy access to affordable healthcare, but are you doing anything as Innovarx Global to give back to the community, especially the youth?
Incorporating a Corporate Social Responsibility was of great importance to the company from day one. We saw the high prevalence of non-communicable diseases (NCD) such as diabetes and hypertension, and sought out to help democratize access to preventative service in that area by launching our “What’s your number?” Health campaign. The WYN campaign leverages the company’s wellness on wheels to find communities in need and offer free health screening for the two most prevalent NCDs.
To date, the company has screened close to two thousand Gambians at no cost and in some cases in remote areas of the country several kilometers away from rural health centers. I think our greatest contribution to the youth has been in the talent development and hiring of young people at all levels of the organization. This has allowed our youthful exuberance to influence advocacy on subject matters like mental health and sexual and reproductive health, which are often highly stigmatized in African Societies.
Lastly, what words of advice would you give to a young African who would one day like to be as successful as you are in the pharmaceuticals industry?
Success is subjective and a never ending journey, so I would advise them to not ascribe a final destination to the perceived notion of reaching a peak. I believe I was fortunate to have a level of exposure, education, skills, and opportunities that allowed me to will the company into existence with a group of like-minded individuals.
The profession of Pharmacy is extremely diverse and is designed to work in harmony with all other healthcare fields. Young Africans (women especially) should follow their passion in the healthcare space and take advantage of all opportunities of apprenticeship and structured goal mapping along the way. Patience is a virtue and must be applied to every aspiration of creating value in any given ecosystem. Make a commitment to courage, accountability and continuous growth because we live in a very competitive world and one’s evolution should never come to a halt. Lastly, internalize the mere fact that yes, we (Africans) deserve better, but we have to create it by being the very change we seek.
Connect with Dr. Ismail through his Instagram @drismailbadjie, or visit his website, https://www.innovarxglobal.com/.
Interviewed by Gugu Mpofu
Wits Protest: Black Leaders and Progress Don’t Go Hand In Hand
The word civilian provides room for law enforcement to set a narrative in the media of students as hooligans with no specific reason for protesting but causing mayhem. Students are civilians too.
Opinion Piece by Rorisang Moyo
In a shameful state of events, the South African Police Service (SAPS) once again shows a level of incompetence documented in its historical failure to control protest crowds. An innocent civilian was shot dead during student protests at Wits University in South Africa on Wednesday, March 10th. The economically disadvantaged students took to the streets to beg the tertiary institution for financial inclusion.
The institution claims that it is trying to prevent a situation where students’ historical debt would lead to the university being unable to financially sustain itself. The university has made R100-million available for financial aid and bursaries, as well as R20-million for students who are facing financial hardships in the face of being owed R1-billion. 8000 students have been financially excluded, this number is telling of the large gap between some (many black) students and education, that still exists not only in South Africa, but in Africa as a whole.
At this point, the word ‘civilian’, used to describe the passerby who was shot dead during the protest, is calculated wordplay weaponised against the protesting students. It implies that in the vicinity of this one civilian (who has now been identified as 35 year old Mthokozisi Ntumba, who actually happened to be a Master’s graduate and a father), there exist terrorists, non-innocent humans who were protesting. It provides room for law enforcement to set a narrative in the media of students as hooligans with no specific reason for protesting but causing mayhem. Students are civilians too!
We have been reminded once again that black lives are disposable and cheap. Black stories are not seen as important enough to warrant a dignified response. The students were not even asking for historical debt to be cleared, but they were begging to be allowed to register, begging for a foot in the door. Someone tweeted that “Always remember to put white students at the front on a march. Cops shoot at our kids never. We all know it’s a fact. #Witsasinamali” Scandalous but true.” That is how law enforcement works in South Africa, where white people are gently handheld through civil disobedience.
The fight for financial inclusion is not new; since 1994 students have been begging state actors to listen to their plight. It should be concerning that students are out protesting about bread and butter issues. This speaks to their struggle to afford to live on a daily basis.
We have heard this story before, where struggling students begging for access are constantly treated as combatants. When they are not treated as combatants, they have to go through the dehumanising and humiliating process of proving that they are poor enough for funding.
Actually, the fact that every year I must prove to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) that I’m still poor is offensive. #FeesMustFall, too rich for NSFAS, too poor for fees, and too black for a bank loan. Y’all don’t see the bigger picture. Current Fees are too high, poor Black people still can’t afford university, NSFAS is a trap, #FeesMustFall!
The right to protest is constitutionally protected by Section 17 of the South African Constitution. A protest is normally a last resort in a discourse where one of the parties is overlooked. During #Feesmustfall, protest violence was a form of agency. It was imperative for the nation as a whole to ask the question of why students resorted to a total shutdown of learning spaces in order to be heard. This time around, the students chose to be peaceful, and yet, they were still regarded as criminals.
The appointment of Zeblon Vilakazi as a black person was seen as a yardstick for progressiveness. Amidst these tensions, there have been questions surrounding the Vice-Chancellor’s leadership. Realistically speaking, the man has inherited former Vice-Chancellor, Adam Habib’s broken system, and has been on the job for only three months.
In trying to pin all of Wits problems on the newly appointed figure, are we not being unrealistic on what it actually takes to dismantle a system? Are we not crucifying black actors in the same way that police did not touch white people protesting about going to beaches during a pandemic, while they showed intense aggression towards black protesters talking about education?
I have to confess that it is easy to look in from the outside and say things like, “South Africans have normalised free things”. From a point of privilege, it is easy to accuse them of not working hard enough, and to imply that they just want attention. I would like us to divorce from that narrative, as it allows relevant actors to rest on their laurels without accountability.
Students report victimisation and bribery by university and law enforcement actors during protests. The victimisation does not have to be physical, but it goes to threats of being threatened with academic exclusion for a specific number of years. A former University of Pretoria student was banned from the university campus during #FeesMustFall protests. He was threatened with the hindering of his graduation. Later after a court case, the student won against the university and was eventually allowed to attend his graduation. Graduation attendance was on condition that he would be off social media, and to not defend the protests.
Protests are necessary to deal with issues such as these, where overlooked and ignored individuals can speak up about the realities of academic spaces. Spaces like universities provide education, while making room for future leaders of society to identify and deal with issues. By stifling protest action, that is an attack on the academia process itself, and the future of the law in South Africa. This is not just a Wits issue. It is inherently a UP issue, a UKZN issue, a UCT issue. It should be everyone’s problem. The future of young South Africans is under threat!
This week again, in another episode of “So you say you are poor”, some students were told that by virtue of applying for the R350 Covid-19 grant, they would be disqualified from NSFAS bursaries, as they would have already benefited from the government. That made no sense at all, as one cannot reasonably deny you money for tuition based on the fact that you received money for food. There is a ridiculous logical gap, as R350 cannot be equated to the cost of tuition and accommodation. The government is traumatising young people by making them participate in a humiliating game of Poor Olympics. If one already had to apply for R350 in order to survive, what makes one think that they can afford to pay for tertiary education?
It is painful to see a parallel of the Sharpeville massacres of the 70s. We should do better!
#WitsAsinamali #FeesMustFall #WitsProtest #NSFAS
Connect with Rori via her Blog, Email and LinkedIn:
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