Violent protests have erupted on university campuses around South Africa after Blade Mzimande—the Minister of Higher Education and Training—announced on Sept. 19 that universities must decide for themselves on fee increases for 2017, but capping increases to 8 percent.
Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand (Wits) University has been shut down after running battles between protesting students and private security. Later the police were called to the campus where they used rubber bullets and stun-grenades to try and disperse the students. This resulted in a number of students being injured and some hospitalized. University facilities were damaged by stone-throwing students. There have also been protests at the Universities of Pretoria, Cape Town and Kwazulu-Natal.
Monday’s announcement was intended to be yet another short-term solution to the problem of finding some way for poor-to-middle class students to access expensive tertiary education in South Africa. But universities warned that they would not be able to survive yet another year without fee increases. Government is cash strapped—the economy has slowed down and the local currency has been volatile—and has had to make serious budget cuts for 2016-2017.
South Africa’s education minister explained that students whose family income fell below R600,000 a year ($43,000) would be exempt from this increase. The government, he said, would subsidize the increment of approximately 70 percent of students who fall beneath the threshold. Everyone who earned above that would be expected to pay their own fees.
The National Treasury said it was working with the Department of Higher Education and Training, as well as other departments, to try and find the R2.5 billion ($2 million) that would be needed to subsidize those whose families could not afford university fees. But students across the country are demanding a free tertiary education for all. Students say that the poor and “missing middle”—students who are too wealthy to attract financial aid, but too poor to afford tertiary education—are systematically excluded through the lack of funding.
The South African Students Congress said government officials lacked the will to implement free education and called the commission of inquiry, implemented late last year, a “delaying tactic.” The group went on to say: “Students are losing patience. We can no longer bear the burden of uncertainty about our future in 2017. We want no fee increment for the 2017 academic year, especially for the poor.”
In 2015 a number of campuses were shut-down when students protested a previous proposal to hike fees, demanding a free education for all. The government agreed that there would be no fee increases in 2016, and the National Treasury had to find money to keep universities open for the current academic year. (Cynics pointed out that 2016 was an election year and that the “no increase” decision was an electioneering maneuver.) The government also appointed a commission to study the feasibility of free higher education in South Africa. The commission is due to report back in July 2017.
The minister’s announcement seemed to address the concerns of students about access for the poor and was, he insisted, in the interests of all. The government, he said, wanted those who could afford to pay. Students, however, said that they were standing united and that they would not back down on their demand of a free education for all.
The student protest has resulted in a divided reaction across the country. Some stand behind them, insisting that all students are poor, while others have condemned the action as “criminal” and “thuggery.”
Jonathan Jansen, former rector of the University of the Free State, wrote a hard-hitting piece in The Times, condemning the violence and said that to the rational mind it made no sense. Jansen went on to say that “we are in an era of post-truth politics” where “it does not matter if the lines between fact and fiction become blurred in the spectacle of public performance.” Jansen insists that it is a small faction that are acting like “gangsters and anarchists” and that most students just want to get on with their studies. “The students whose lives they are destroying are the very people they claim to speak for,” Jansen said.
“Our anger results from being lied to by government,” one protesting Wits student said. The Student Representative Council at Wits said that free university education was a promise made by the ruling A.N.C. in their election campaign in 2012.
Whether this expectation could be justified is hard to ascertain.
Jesuit chaplain to Wits, the Rev. Graham Pugin, whose office overlooks one of the areas where police were firing rubber bullets and tear gas at students, said that he felt that St. Ignatius would want free quality education for all. This raises questions about how and who. “If corruption by politicians in South Africa was reduced or even eliminated it could be done,” Father Pugin said. He added if policymakers had not become so fixated on a university education and made space for a technical education, quality education could be offered free to all young people.
Some students involved in the protests say that months of engagement in appropriate fora have only resulted in them being treated contemptuously by government and university management. Others argue that the terms of reference of the commission set up by government are problematic.
It is alarming to note that the government does not seem to have engaged with role-players and has passed the responsibility on to tertiary institutions. Since the protests broke out there has been no word from government. The Minister of Higher Education and Training, after making the initial announcement that provoked the outrage, has remained mute on the volatile situation prevailing on many campuses. Secretary General of the ruling A.N.C., Gwede Mantashe, told a press conference that if he were the minister he would shut tertiary institutions down for six months. This only antagonized those protesting more.
What is clear is that substantial damage is being done to the country’s universities. Something needs to be done before, as one colleague of mine remarked, no quality higher education exists to protest over. It’s a sad fact: South Africa’s universities are in a crisis.
Russell Pollitt, S.J., is one of America's Johannesburg correspondents.