The return of #FeesMustFall in South Africa

Jacob Zuma's government faces public outrage over the soaring cost of education. Here is what led to the recent flare up.

Reuters/Handout: Reuters
Reuters/Handout: Reuters

A student-led call for free education morphed into a nationwide campaign, resulting in clashes and the suspension of academic work in various universities.

Updated Oct 11, 2016

1. It all began with a statement  

On September 19, the government of South Africa announced an eight per cent hike in annual tuition fees for higher education. 

The move did not go down well with students since a significant number of them had been campaigning for over a year to bring down the soaring costs of higher education. They believe the country’s academia is skewed in favour of its elite (mostly white people) and that black students are deliberately and systematically kept out of higher education. There are also some radical student groups that seek free education.

Kefentse Mkhari, a student leader at Witwatersrand, summed up the student anger perfectly in his recent blog post. “We are tired of being reminded of how poor we are every time we knock on the doors of higher learning institutions. The black youth of this country has had enough!”

#FeesMustFall gained momentum soon after the government publicised its plans to raise the tuition fees.

2. Call for free education resurges on campuses  

On September 20, students across the country observed a day-long strike in several universities. The call for the strike came from the Students Representative Council at University of the Witwatersrand, or "Wits," a reputed institution in Johannesburg with over 37,000 students.

Wits university became the epicentre of the Fees Must Fall movement, which started in 2015. The campaign picked up steam because several thousand students from South Africa’s top eight institutions, including Wits, are struggling with heavy debts. 

According to annual reports compiled in 2014, students owe $51 million to banks and other money-lending institutions. In addition, government subsidies to higher education have decreased and students have to make up the fee differential. The youth has also grown disillusioned with the job market as unemployment remains prevalent.

When students launched the Fees Must Fall, it was successful enough to scuttle the government’s plan to raise tuition fees by up to 10.5 percent. Now, a year later, students and the government have locked horns once again.  

3. Things turn violent as police and protesters clash

A day after the strike on September 21, the university resumed academic work. However, students reportedly barged into classrooms and pulled out lecturers to reinforce the shutdown. To restore order on campus, the police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at the defiant crowd and injured several dozen protesters. The police also arrested 31 students.

Police used force to restore academic work at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, September 20.

4. The question of inequality takes centre-stage

The police crackdown on students triggered an uproar. A large number of South Africans, mostly from impoverished and low-income backgrounds, rallied once again behind the Fees Must Fall movement. 

The question of inequality returned to newspapers and television screens. Though the centuries-long apartheid ended in the country in 1994, people of colour sought to what they called “decolonize” its education.

5. Few students turn up to class 

The Wits administration called for a poll on September 29, asking students if they were keen on resuming classes. According to the administration, the poll suggested 75 per cent students did want to attend university. Classes resumed, but except for the attendance of a handful of white students, the turnout was seriously low. 

6. Wits administration returns to diplomacy

The university administration offered students a deal: if they end the strike, the university will speak to the government on their behalf. 

It called a “general assembly” on October 7, where students and parents were supposed to talk about their struggles with rising tuition fees. An outcome based on the discussions at the assembly was to be shared with the government.  

Students received support from some members of the teaching faculty at the University of Witwatersrand.

7. Failure and breakdown

No grand assembly takes place, as students demanded all universities country-wide be shut down until the government agrees to commit to free education.

The university management called off the assembly as it felt the students reneged on prior agreements.

Classes resumed on Monday but several hundred students gathered in approved protest zones.

Can South Africa afford to provide free education?

The country’s finance minister Pravin Gordhan recently said the government cannot afford to provide free education, citing revenue deficit and shrinking fiscal space. However, an internal report of the higher education ministry drafted in 2012 suggests free education was possible for those who fell under the lowest tax bracket of $13,160. 

Author: Mehboob Jeelani