A #FeesMustFall demonstration in Pretoria, South Africa, 23 October 2015
On October 14th, students at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa – otherwise known as Wits University – shut down roads leading into and out of the institution to protest a proposed 10.5% fee increase for the 2016 academic year, among other proposed increases to international student fees and registration fees. These protests quickly spread to other public institutions across South Africa, and the #FeesMustFall movement was born. Soon the protests grew even beyond university campuses, and students marched on – and into – parliament. There, students were met by police with tear gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades. The protests came to a head on October 23rd, when South African President Jacob Zuma announced that there would be no fee increase in 2016. Students then focused their attention on ending the outsourcing of labour at higher institutions, and managed to secure commitments to insourcing labour from universities such as Wits, the University of the Western Cape (UWC), and the University of Cape Town (UCT).
Many questions still remain unanswered, such as the use of police brutality against student protesters, obtaining funds to cover the deficit from the suspension of fee hikes, the option of free higher education, etc. However, this movement – which has arguably been the largest student movement since the Soweto Uprising of June 16, 1976 – has taken some major steps towards more than just preventing fee increases. These protests are, on a larger scale, indicative of changing global attitudes towards education, festering societal issues in South Africa that are manifesting into breakdowns in social cohesion, and a change in the tides of political activism across the African continent.
Education for All
University students in the United Kingdom – many of whom are South African students studying in the UK in addition to others hailing from countries such as Germany, China, and Cameroon – expressed solidarity with the #FeesMustFall movement, with up to 150 protesters gathering outside the South African High Commission in Trafalgar Square, London, on October 23rd. While any connection drawn between that one #FeesMustFall demonstration and the on-going #GrantsNotDebts protests in London for free higher education is tenuous at best, the two movements do share a common goal: fair, equal, and affordable access to higher education for all. South Africa’s student protests may have been motivated by the straightforward fact that many students could not afford to pay the dramatic fee increases, particularly given how late in the year these increases were announced, but they also fall in line with a global trend moving towards free higher education. European countries such as Germany and the Scandinavian nations have embraced free higher education for all. In addition to the demands of UK students for free higher education, Democratic Primary candidate Bernie Sanders has also outlined a policy for free college education in the US.
South Africa is very much a part of this movement, and technically has been since the inception of democracy in 1994. South Africa’s constitution commits the country to making “further education … progressively available and accessible” to all its citizens, thus rendering the government’s inability to provide such accessibility in recent – and current – times unconstitutional. This failure on the part of the government is particularly glaring given a 2012 report that found free higher education for South Africa’s poor to be feasible, given significant additional funding allocation and a five-part financing system of personal contributions, rebates for top students, a repayable loan, finances from other potential sources, and a “last resort grant” for poor students to bridge any remaining gaps. The cost to the government of these last resort grants was estimated at R100-million, which, though a sizable sum, could certainly be covered – along with the shortfall due to no fee increases – in a variety of ways that would avoid austerity. Responsibility for funding free and fair education doesn’t have to fall solely on the government, either: while spending university endowments is not ideal, institutions of higher learning still have significant social capital that can be leveraged to raise funds for students in need.
Don’t Build Your House on the Sand
The 2012 report is a prime example of how the South African government carries out investigations, compiles reports, and even formulates policies that could combat the country’s myriad issues, yet in the end fails to actually institute these policies. This trend of inaction has led to a general loss of faith among much of South Africa’s population towards government’s proficiency in service delivery. This has traditionally led to yearly strings of protests; however, recently, things have started to take a turn for the worse. Instances of xenophobic attacks – and lack of protection from the police during these attacks – have increased. Little has been done to combat the salient racialization present in almost all spheres of South African society, leading to movements such as #FeesMustFall and the earlier #RhodesMustFall, and most prominently seen in the literal wall of bodies formed by white protesters to protect black students from police brutality in the recent protests. Unemployment is a ticking time-bomb, with more than a third of South Africa’s population unemployed, almost two-thirds of which is under the age of 35. Government corruption has in many ways become the norm. The recent slew of student movements has, more broadly, been a response to such issues among others, which has led to alliances like that with workers over ending outsourcing. Of course, university students cannot do this on their own, nor is free higher education the ultimate answer: South Africa has a higher education participation rate of only about 16% as is. Much farther-reaching changes are needed, but mass mobilisation and government accountability, as evident from the #FeesMustFall movement, can be used as a springboard for further activism.
It is important to acknowledge that South Africa’s issues and the responses to these issues do not exist in a vacuum. Popular uprisings like the Arab Spring have gotten a great deal of international attention for people demanding accountability, service delivery, and eradication of corruption from their governments, yet countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, which took central roles in the Arab Spring, are also African countries. There is no homogenous African experience, but Pan-Africanism is based on a commonality shared between peoples of the African continent, and when it comes to popular uprisings and socio-political activism, this commonality is generally based on the socio-political history of the continent. One shared aspect of many African nations is the so-called ‘liberation party.’
In African history, the liberation party generally starts off as a resistance movement against oppressive rule. In most cases, this was a colonial power; however, there are exceptions where the ruling racial elite is – or at least views itself to be – a more naturalised population, as was the case with Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa. Once liberation parties lead their people to freedom from subjugation, they generally pass into power, mostly through democratic means. Such is the case with the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, whose leader Nelson Mandela became a global symbol for the fight against racist hegemonic rule.
However, once the liberation party is in power, it faces an identity crisis of sorts. It has existed so long as a popular movement against a tyrannical government that redefining itself into a policy-driven organisation, working in collaboration with other political organisations on a range of issues far more diverse than liberation, causes the party to change in essence. ANC leaders such as Mandela and Chris Hani were aware of this, and expressed their worries for the future as follows:
“If the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government.” – Mandela
“What I fear is that the liberators emerge as elitists … who drive around in Mercedes Benzes and use the resources of this country … to live in palaces and to gather riches.” – Hani
Unfortunately, both of these fears have been realised in the ‘new’ South Africa, and in many other ‘liberated’ nations across Africa. This situation has seen the decline of the power of liberation parties across the continent: the Botswana Democratic Party won less than half the total vote in the most recent national election for the first time since liberation nearly 50 years ago, while the national elections of Mozambique and South Africa both saw the decline of ruling liberation parties (Frelimo and the ANC, respectively) and the emergence of an upstart opposition party (the Mozambican Democratic Movement and South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters, respectively). Although some liberation parties, such as Namibia’s Swapo, are still dominant in their countries, the continent as a whole is experiencing a shift away from allegiance to liberation parties. This shift has influenced and been expressed through the #FeesMustFall movement, and can provide support and motivation for the movement to keep gathering steam rather than sputter out.
This is an exciting time in South Africa, Africa, and the world as a whole. Youth are rising up and demanding what they deserve from the figures in power. The South African Students Congress (Sasco), South Africa’s Young Communist League, and the ANC Youth League have already collectively stated that protests shall resume after exams are over. These protests have grown out of more than just fee increases, and should continue to address a diverse range of societal issues ‒ as they have by demanding an end to outsourcing. The world’s youth have the power to hold their leaders accountable. It is time for leaders not just to listen, but to act, while they still have the authority and legitimacy to do so.
Adrian Jennings is a sophomore at Wheaton College, studying Chinese and Mathematics.