The Student Protests Rocking South Africa Are About More Than Tuition

Two decades after the end of apartheid, the country is still riven by inequality and injustice. Students have had enough.

South African Police forces charge students on the south lawn of the Union Building in Pretoria during a protest against university fee hikes on October 23, 2015. South African President Jacob Zuma abandoned proposed hikes to university fees after student protests culminated in police firing stun grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas outside government headquarters. AFP PHOTO / MUJAHID SAFODIEN        (Photo credit should read MUJAHID SAFODIEN/AFP/Getty Images)
South African Police forces charge students on the south lawn of the Union Building in Pretoria during a protest against university fee hikes on October 23, 2015. South African President Jacob Zuma abandoned proposed hikes to university fees after student protests culminated in police firing stun grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas outside government headquarters. AFP PHOTO / MUJAHID SAFODIEN (Photo credit should read MUJAHID SAFODIEN/AFP/Getty Images)

PRETORIA, South Africa — Inside a small, wood-paneled press briefing room at the South African president’s Pretoria office last Friday, Jacob Zuma stood, smoothed his tie, and walked calmly to his podium.

“I’ve received a briefing from student leaders on matters of concern to them,” he said without a flicker of energy, his eyes darting towards the TV cameras carrying his speech live on national television. “On the matter at hand, we agreed that there will be a zero increase of university fees in 2016.”

If the delivery was listless, the message was profound: The fight that had launched thousands of students into the streets and paralyzed the country’s university system for nearly a week was finally over, the president seemed to be saying. He had surrendered.

Over the previous few days, student activists had managed an unprecedented feat. They had completely shut down nearly every major university in the country and in the process had sharpened a relatively niche cause — halting a rise in tuition — into a national moral imperative, a powerful touchstone for widespread anger over the sluggish pace of social transformation here since the end of apartheid 21 years ago. And now they had brought their 73-year-old president, a man old enough to be their grandfather, to the bargaining table — and then come out on top.

But outside the gates of Zuma’s office, in the minutes after his announcement, the mood felt better suited to a funeral than to a victory march. Many of the thousands of demonstrators who had gathered earlier in the day to demand an audience with the president had been turned back with a volley of police stun grenades and tear gas canisters, leaving behind flattened signs bearing messages like, “New democracy, same old shit,” and “Sorry for the inconvenience. We’re trying to change the world.” Those who remained were huddled in small groups, their eyes still red and watery from the tear gas, as news of Zuma’s speech slowly spread through the crowd.

“My sister, this doesn’t feel like a victory. Not at all,” said Moshe Ndebele, a media studies student at the University of Johannesburg. He said his mother had washed floors for 20 years in order to save the money for him to go to university. Now, a growing stack of unpaid bills — the product of university education costs that have nearly doubled since 2008 — threatened to keep him from finishing his degree. Those bills weren’t going away just because the creeping price of tuition had been temporarily halted. “The president thinks this is enough, that we will be his puppets now, but it isn’t, and we won’t,” he said.

A few moments later, as if to prove Ndebele’s point, a small group of students surged forward once again. They converged on the thin line of riot police blocking the steps to Zuma’s office, hurling small stones and insults as they went. The officers responded by firing tear gas canisters, which hissed as the crowd reeled back. This time when the protesters fled, the police followed close behind, spraying rubber bullets into their backs as they ran screaming into the spring afternoon.

Some 40 miles away on tree-lined campus of the University of the Witwatersrand, known colloquially as Wits, in Johannesburg, students stroll through what looks at first glance like it could be one of Nelson Mandela’s dreamscapes. The lawns and lecture halls are packed with the kind of well-proportioned diversity that American colleges can conjure only in glossy admissions brochures. And it’s no accident: Since the end of white rule here two decades ago, access to the country’s best universities has been radically democratized. There are now twice as many students enrolled in institutions of higher education as there were in 1994, and the vast majority of them are black.

But those gains obscure another, far less glamorous trend. Of the more than 40,000 students who begin a degree at a South African university or technical collage each year, only 15 percent will ultimately graduate. Hobbled by their years in South Africa’s massively under-serviced public school system, many find themselves unable to meet the academic demands of college-level courses. Meanwhile, a large number of students falter for an even simpler reason: They cannot pay. That’s little surprise in a country where more than half the population lives below the government-defined poverty line, and the average white person’s income is around six times that of the average black person’s.

“Every year I have students coming to me and saying they are dropping out because of financial strain,” says David Dickinson, a professor of sociology at Wits. “It’s incredibly difficult to watch, because I know there’s very little I can do for them.”

That’s why, when the university’s governing council met earlier this year to determine tuition prices for the coming year, Dickinson voted against a proposed 10.5 percent increase, which would take the cost for most courses on campus to between $3,000 and $4,000 — on par with the tuition fees at other universities in South Africa but well above the median household income of about $2,300.

The motion passed anyway, and on Oct. 14, hundreds of Wits students sat down in front of the university’s entrances and refused to move, while thousands more filled the campus roads behind them. The university shut down, the hashtag #FeesMustFall began trending on South African Twitter, and a protest movement was born. Within days, more than a dozen institutions around the country — most of them slated for similar fee increases — had joined in.

But as the protesters elbowed their way into the media spotlight, one fact quickly became glaringly obvious: This wasn’t just about tuition bills.

“When my parents fought apartheid, they weren’t just trying to get us the vote — they were trying to change the social structure,” said Nompumelelo Gumbi, a second-year politics and philosophy student at Wits. So why, she wondered, had inequality actually deepened since a majority-elected government took power? Why, a generation later, were the country’s poorest and most disenfranchised, still almost exclusively black?

When Gumbi heard that students were marching for lower tuition, she quickly joined. “Every generation has a role to play to fight for justice, and this is ours,” she said.

Despite the breathless pace and high drama of the last two weeks of protests, which have continued even after Zuma’s announcement, the students’ demands aren’t new — nor should they have been particularly surprising. Free education was a central promise of South Africa’s liberation movement dating back to the 1950s, but it fell by the wayside after the end of apartheid as demands for housing and social services were given priority. Students have never forgotten the promise of free education, however, and anger has mounted with each tuition hike, especially at the country’s historically black universities where financial strain is the heaviest. Students at these universities have been protesting for years over rising tuition costs and the malnourished state of the national financial aid scheme.

“What’s different this time is that there’s not going to be any negotiating,” said Thapelo Mhlongo, an education student at the Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria, as he wiped tears from his face after the Pretoria protest was dispersed with tear gas. “This government has been arrogant, and we’re going to keep our institutions closed until they come to their senses and listen to all of our demands.”

Among those demands, he said, are free tuition and an end to the practice of outsourcing contracts for low-paid university staff, whose wages are depressed even further as subcontract employees. But as demonstrations continue into their third week, not all protesters agree on the goals of the movement. Some universities, including Wits, reopened this week after students and management brokered shaky compromises meant to allow the schools to begin administering end-of-year exams. Several campuses remain closed amid continued protests, however, and administrators have turned to increasingly heavy-handed police action to bring students to heel.

But in at least one subject — history — the demonstrators have already proved they have been paying attention. Protests over the past two weeks have been crowded with signs harkening back to South Africa’s long history of popular youth revolt, bearing messages like “1976 redux” and “1976 – 2015: why is it always the students?”

Those are references to a massive student uprising in the Johannesburg townships of Soweto in June 1976 during which apartheid police murdered at least 176 unarmed protesters. Those demonstrations, led by primary and high school students, touched off a massive groundswell of popular protest in South Africa and heightened international pressure to end white rule. They are widely considered to have marked the beginning of the end of apartheid.

Now one of the great lessons of June 1976 looks set to become a lesson of October 2015: Where students march, the country follows.

Ryan Lenora Brown is a freelance journalist based in Johannesburg, where she covers southern Africa for the Christian Science Monitor and other publications. Twitter: @ryanlenorabrown

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