There are always casualties in war. In the early 1980s, an aspiring professional, Hendrick Matikweni Nkuna from Tembisa, Gauteng, became a victim of the battle for academic and financial inclusion and transformation of higher education.
Nkuna’s bust is erected at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) Soshanguve South campus as a remembrance of a day that paged a new chapter in the history of the emancipation and access to education for marginalised communities.
The Soshanguve South campus is a successor to Mabopane East Technikon, Technikon Northern Transvaal (TNT) and Technikon Northern Gauteng (TNG).
According to the South African Students Press Union newsletter of August 1984, Nkuna was allegedly shot in the head by the police during a student protest where they were demanding recognition of a democratically elected student representative council at the erstwhile Mabopane East Technikon.
The South African History Online website records that “in mid-1983 the expulsion of eight students from the Mabopane East Technikon resulted in a lecture boycott and the eventual expulsion of the entire student body of about 1 000 students.”
Max Theka, one of the former student leaders during the TNT era in the early 1990s, believes that heroes such as Nkuna should be celebrated more often. Theka says it was the sacrifice of the likes of Matikweni that paved the way for free education and broader academic inclusion at institutions of higher learning.
“Nkuna represents the sweat and the toil of a generation of young lions. This was during a time when institutions were excluding students from academic opportunities based on their economic status,” Theka said. He added that some students were deliberately excluded, even though they had passed matric, because the institution wanted to set a particular (higher) standard for admissions.
Access to quality education remains one of the key conditions for any society to flourish socially and economically. As the late global anti-apartheid icon Nelson Rolihlala Mandela once said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Efforts in Tembisa towards preserving the memory of this national hero are commendable, as the township has named one of the streets in Hospital View area after him.
Walking down Matikweni Street, we approach two youths, seemingly in their mid-twenties, washing a maroon VW Jetta 2 sedan outside one of the yards. They had no idea who this man was and never heard of him beyond the street name.
Significantly, Matikweni Street lies perpendicular to Hector Pieterson Street. These two youths were shot by the security forces during student protests for equal access to education in 1984 and 1976, respectively.
As one travels down Mampuru Street, passing Tembisa train station on the right, there is a fairly developed low-cost housing area named Matikweni Nkuna Village. Roughly two kilometres further is the late Nkuna’s home, situated at the corner of Hintsa Street, opposite Mvelaphanda Primary School.
On an ordinary Friday morning, there seems to be no hype in the area. A handful of residents are walking on the streets. Further down the street, three gentlemen are standing next to an abandoned or scrapped vehicle, catching up on the latest news. They cheerfully give directions to a stranded motorist before carrying on with their chat.
Yet more than three decades later, those who were in the frontline of the student uprisings throughout South Africa still vividly remember events that led to one of their own succumbing to a bullet wound, bleeding for a better education and a better life.
The 2015 #FeesMustFall student movement was surely inspired by the gallantry of the 1976 uprisings and the 1980s protests, as they were all about access to equal and quality education irrespective of race.
TUT has also experienced student fatalities in the current era. Lesedi Benjamin Phetla died during the #FeesMustFall protest in 2016 and Katlego Monareng in the 2018 protest.
It is through the toil of the pioneering student activists such as Matikweni Nkuna that institutions of higher learning are now accessible to all races, ushering in other developments such as inclusive student financial aid schemes and fee-free higher education.
We hope that TUT students, especially those studying at the Soshanguve South Campus, will appreciate the significance of the sculpture of Hendrick Matikweni Nkuna and his contribution to the fight for equal access to quality education.
Every year during graduations, students take snaps next to this sculpture, located a few metres from the entrance of the Great Gencor Hall. May those youths on Matikweni Street also grasp the history and heritage surrounding them.
As we continue to look at institutions of higher learning for future leaders of society, and as the country commemorated its heritage in the past month, the question remains: is there a case for heritage sites for student activists?
Maubane is a Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) alumnus and convener of the University of South Africa (Unisa) alumni, Polokwane chapter. Davhana is a Unisa postgraduate, TUT alumna and staff member. They write in their personal capacities