Like Apartheid was for their parents, South African students say the fight for lower tuition fees is the struggle of their generation.
For more than a year now, students across the country have been marching through their university campuses in protest. Their demand? A ‘free, decolonised education’. Initially a peaceful movement, protests have become increasingly violent in recent weeks.
The protests were first sparked when the government first proposed a tuition fee increase of between 10 and 12% last year. In October 2015, students blocked the entrance to the campus of University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, after suggestions it may raise fees by 10.5% in 2016. The protests quickly spread to other top universities across the country, prompting President Jacob Zuma to announce a year long freeze on the cost of tuition.
University fees in South Africa vary per institution and are determined based on income from three main sources of funding. These include government subsidies and private investment in addition to fees. The subsidy for each institution is determined based on the socio-economic background of its students, and while the amount of government funding given to universities has increased by almost 70% since 2001, a decrease in the number of students enrolling has meant a decrease in the subsidy paid per student.
After the announcement of a proposal to increase fees by 8% in 2017, protests demanding free education for all soon re-erupted. The movement has since grown to encompass an entire social class – the ‘missing middle’. Many protesters are poor black students whose parents have jobs but cannot afford the high cost of a university education, a situation illustrative of the general trend of inequality within South Africa as a whole.
The government has now addressed some of the protesters’ concerns. Zuma recently announced that he was putting together a task force to look into the issue to ensure that the future of the country’s ‘children’ was ‘not jeopardized’. Some protesters have likened the financial burden imposed by annual fee increases to the Bantu Education Act of 1953 – an Apartheid era law which imposed a curriculum suited to the ‘nature and requirements of the black people’, thereby limiting their potential to reach some high-level positions in society.
Whether free education can and should be achieved is also a subject of much debate. Some Black voices have accused the country’s White population of refusing to acknowledge the ‘black debt’ owed to much of the country’s population post-Apartheid.
On an economic level, some independent organisations including the South African Institute on Race Relations have suggested that the money to pay for free education could be raised through tax increases. Some University heads have, however, maintained that providing universal free education as the protesters demand would not be economically viable.
There is also a wider political element to these protests. South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) has been in the midst of a sharp popularity decline ever since President Zuma was mired by allegations of corruption, accused of being ‘morally compromised’ and unable to lead. The party’s recent announcement that the promised judge-led task force on tuition fees will be delayed until April 2017 has done nothing but stoke tensions further.
The #FeesMustFall protests are, above all, a fight over the way in which South Africa deals with its own heritage. The scenes of protesters retalitating against police attacks with rocks are reminiscent of the student movement during the Apartheid era- a divide along racial and economic lines which some believe never went away. With such high levels of tension, a compromise will be difficult to reach.