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South African students show they have had enough

A professor at a major South African university explains why undergraduates took to the streets to stop fee increases

October 24, 2015 2:00AM ET

After years of simmering discontent at South Africa’s 26 public universities, a nationwide student insurrection is unfolding. On Friday, the protests succeeded in convincing the government to cancel a planned tuition fee increase for 2016. Whether the students will continue to fight for further reforms remains to be seen.

Today’s students are from the generation called the born free, who never knew apartheid. Their actions are developing into an open challenge to the political establishment, the generation shaped by the 1976 Soweto uprising, in which students took on the apartheid state.

In recent years, student protest movements have arisen in a number of countries, such as the United Kingdom in 2010, Chile since 2011 and Canada in 2012. In general, these protests were initially directed against increased university tuition fees but developed wider demands in regard to the higher education system, framed by increased inequality. This points to a common dynamic: the squeeze that neoliberal economic policies have placed on educational systems around the globe.

All these factors are present in the current South African situation, alongside the additional factors of race and the cultural alienation that the born frees experience in universities that have struggled to transform themselves over the past two decades.

Under apartheid, South Africa’s education system was organized along racial lines. After the establishment of full democracy in 1994, a massive reorganization took place, in which 23 (later 26) public universities were created. These are divided into three categories: universities of technology, which are largely teaching institutions, based on previously black, or “bush,” universities; research-intensive institutions, most of which were previously restricted to whites; and comprehensive universities that combine research and teaching focuses.

All these universities have been required to increase student numbers dramatically, without matching funding, as the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), has sought to pursue an economic development agenda within a fiscally conservative framework. Funding for higher education more than doubled from 2006 to 2013 but declined in real and student per capita terms. Higher education expenditure as a percentage of education expenditure for all of Africa is 20 percent and averages 23 percent for Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development member states but is just 12 percent for South Africa. This has put universities under enormous financial pressure that shows no sign of abating. The government’s economic development plan envisages further increases in student numbers. The response of university councils has been to raise student fees above inflation rates to cover the shortfall.

Student protests over fees have been taking place for years but were largely confined to the universities of technology and were off the national radar, other than when violence flared. This year, however, has been different. The historically white universities have erupted. Some of these, including my university, the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, are now close to representative of South Africa’s racial composition (about 90 percent black) when it comes to students, although faculties remain predominantly white.

Universities retain a considerable degree of autonomy, and a few have remained white enclaves. The first student uprisings this year were not about money but about racial and cultural transformation. Perhaps the clearest example was the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at the University of Cape Town, which brought down a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, a symbol of colonialism. But soon other issues came to the fore.

Student fees are perpetuating discrimination, excluding poor and mostly black students.

Last year I was elected onto the Wits Council, the university’s governing body, by the academic staff. I also sit on the university finance committee and previously served as the president of the university’s academic union. This has given me a close-up perspective on the setting of student fees.

I already crossed swords with the council on the matter of student fees once. The Ministry of Higher Education and Training had asked the council to approve a three-year forecast with a yearly increase in the government subsidy of 3.5 percent — below inflation, which is running about 5 percent — and an average increase in student fees of 9 percent. I argued that submitting such a document would be unacceptable and would turn Wits into a de facto private university open only to the rich.

On the ground the signs of this were very real: empty seats in classes, the seats of students who were academically qualified but could not afford the fees. As a sociologist, I saw how this was perpetuating discrimination, excluding poor and mostly black students. Such outcomes were fraying South Africa’s already threadbare social fabric.

When the council met on Oct. 2, the proposed student fee was 10.5 percent. No further reduction to this figure was possible, we were told. Anything less would see us go into the red. I didn’t dispute the numbers, but I argued that we could not continue on this path. We had to make a stand and take the issue up with the government. However, it was clear that other council members didn’t have the stomach for such a fight. When it went to a vote, only the two student representatives and I voted against the increase. At the time, I thought that was all that could be done.

But less than two weeks later, the students had closed down the campus. The initial reaction from the vice chancellor was authoritarian. He asked the university’s council and senate to back disciplinary action against the protesting students. Overwhelmingly, they supported his approach. But this approach backfired, further inflaming the protests.

Yesterday morning, campuses across the country were closed. Public opinion had swung over to the students. University management and councils, including mine, came out in support of the students’ demands. The education minister had been humiliated, and the issue of student finance was finally on the national agenda. President Jacob Zuma called vice chancellors and chairs of councils to the Union Buildings, the seat of government, in Pretoria. The students were marching there. I joined them. 

In a televised announcement later in the day, Zuma said that fees wouldn't increase. He had heard us.


Postscript: My final line suggests that there has been a resolution of the crisis. It’s clear that there was a meaningful response from President Zuma to the students’ demands, but perhaps I was too optimistic. At a charged but disciplined meeting on Saturday afternoon, Wits students resolved to continue their occupation. Their demand is free tertiary education for the poor. They are also reiterating their demand for an end to the outsourcing of service workers at universities. Wits University will remain closed on Monday.

Whether this protest fizzles out or develops into a wider challenge over social justice in South Africa (one of the most unequal societies on earth) remains to be seen. What we will see over the coming days is how widespread student support is for continuing, whether this remains a national campaign, and whether it will be joined by other groups, such as South Africa’s underclass of precarious workers. 

David Dickinson is a professor of sociology and a member of council at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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