Themba Hadebe / AP

South Africa student protests reveal deep discontent with Zuma government

Movement sparked by university fee-hike underlines growing disillusionment with ANC's unfulfilled promises

Widespread protests organized by a broad coalition of students in South Africa escalated this week, compelling the government on Friday to call a halt to plans to raise university tuition fees. But the scale of the protests and the heavy-handed police response has, according to many South Africans, called into question the "revolutionary" legitimacy claimed by President Jacob Zuma as the head of the party that led the liberation struggle against apartheid. 

“People are generally agreeing that the ANC is not the party to fundamentally transform South Africa, at least not in its current form,” Sean Jacobs, assistant professor of international affairs at the New School in New York City and specialist in South African politics, told Al Jazeera.

Nelson Mandela’s liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC), has comfortably won every election since the demise of the apartheid regime 21 years ago. But the ANC's failure to deliver on many of its promises — including free education for all — and with levels of economic inequality now higher than they were under apartheid, the ruling party's support has declined slightly in recent elections. The government's argument that it can't afford to pay for university education for students from poor backgrounds has not been helped by repeated allegations of corruption against Zuma and other officials — allegations they strongly deny.

The ANC did not respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment. 

The current wave of protest was sparked by an Oct. 13 announcement by the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg that tuition fees would rise by as much as 11.5 percent for the next school year. In protest at the fee hike, Wits students immediately launched a boycott of their classes. Within days, their movement — known by the hashtag #FeesMustFall (following the success of the #Rhodesmustfall campaign to remove symbols of colonialism and white privilege at South African campuses) — had spread to 15 of the country’s 20 universities. 

“The students on the whole have conducted themselves with dignity and bravery for over a week now and brought the government and the universities to their knees,” said Ashfaaq Carim, a lecturer at the Wits Journalism department and former Al Jazeera employee.

But the government responded on Wednesday by sending in security forces, which used tear gas and stun grenades in an attempt to disperse protesters who had stormed the parliament precinct in Cape Town. Many South Africans were shocked by the spectacle, which essentially repeated student protests in the apartheid era and harsh police responses. The latest police behavior infuriated wider constituencies, producing the largest protests South Africa had seen since the anti-apartheid struggle era.

Citations of a prescient 1993 Nelson Mandela quote — "If the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government" — went viral on South African social media. 

After an estimated 10,000 or more protesters surrounded Pretoria’s Union Buildings, South Africa’s equivalent of the White House, Zuma met on Friday with student leaders and responded to the protesters’ demands by agreeing that the fee hike would be canceled.

“We agree that there will be a zero increase of university fees in 2016,” Zuma said in a national speech. But the statement did not address how the tuition shortfall caused by the decrease in government subsidies would be funded.

Student leaders greeted the announcement as a step in the right direction, but one that falls short of their demand for cuts in fees.

“Our demands have been very clear — we want all universities to be free,” Kanye Che Lephatsa, a student leader from the Central University of Technology in Blomfontein, told Al Jazeera. “We want free education.”

This "born-free" generation of students was spared their parents' experience of white minority rule, but has grown up amid the growing inequality and persistent poverty of the post-apartheid era. Poverty disproportionately affects black South Africans, who comprise nearly 80 percent of the population but are under-represented in the country's universities.

“The ANC statement does not move us at all,” Lephatsa said. “We’ve not received the outcome we desired.”

He said the protests will continue. “Fees must fall; we didn’t say 0 percent increase, we said fees must fall,” Lephatsa said. “That’s the bottom line.”

Even without a fee hike, tuition is still too expensive for most South Africans, Lephatsa said. “Fees in their current form remain exorbitant.”

The government has said it can’t afford to fund free education, but critics point to numerous allegations of government corruption and misuse of public funds — including a recent $23 million security upgrade to Zuma’s home.

Youth unemployment is almost double that of adults and still growing, contributing to a sense of desperation. “This is about two decades of building an anti-youth machine,” Ray Hartley, Editor of Johannesburg-based Rand Daily Mail, told Al Jazeera. “The ANC is panicking because this large apathetic constituency is awakening and adopting a post-liberation agenda.”

That agenda is unlikely to be confined to tuition fees, according to Jacobs. “Every time the government responds, (the protesters) will up the ante,” he added. “Zuma’s announcement didn’t say anything about free education or the problem of outsourcing at universities.”

“It also didn’t say anything about police brutality … or some of the student leaders who were arrested — will their cases be dropped?” Jacobs said, adding that police were shooting people, particularly poor people, on an almost daily basis.

The movement may widen and grow, taking on broader economic issues, including privatization of public institutions and austerity policies. Lephatsa hopes to eventually challenge the economic system itself: “Capitalism must fall," he said, "and all agents managing that system must fall together with them."

Witnessing tens of thousands of young South Africans finally moved to take action to shape their destinies inspired many veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle. “The youth, throughout time, are the custodians and bearers of our courage,” said Rev. Michael Weeder, a former anti-apartheid activist priest and now Dean of Cape Town's St. George’s Cathedral. “Today, as they reference the perennial cause of justice in the moral giants of our continent — Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko — we are reminded that a new world is possible and that radical, economic transformation is a must.”

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