by Moitshepi MoAfrika Lipholo
(Student Leader, University of the Free State, South Africa)
In 2015, South Africa was subjected to significant student driven protest actions in the higher education sector. This was based in the form of various social movements beginning with the #Rhodes Must Fall campaign at the University of Cape Town (UCT). The actions of a postgraduate student at the UCT pouring human waste over the campus statue of the colonialist Cecil John Rhodes gave birth to the #Rhodes Must Fall movement. The demand for eradication of colonialist and Apartheid symbols such as buildings, statues, artworks, and names in the higher education spaces linked to the apartheid past, can be regard as the first phase for the students’ revolt. This first phase was pregnant with the call for free education under the hash tag Fees must Fall.
A new phase of the student movement started at Wits University after the leaked information that the Johannesburg university was about to increase its fees by 10. 5%. On 14 October 2015 South Africa was trending with #FeesMustFall. The students used social media as the tool to mobilize other students to protest against the increase of fees. On the same day students also started to shut down campuses across the country. On this day too, the former Minister of Higher Education and Training Dr Blade Nzimande was hosting the Summit on Transformation in Higher Education in Durban with different stakeholders. The students boycotted the summit. This was a sign of problems ahead regarding the affordability of fees in higher education for poor deserving students. At the end of October that year, students closed almost all campus around the country. They also managed to bring the country to a standstill and forced a freeze on fees increase. The call for free education was the fight against the commodification of education in South Africa. The notion that the only way to access higher quality education is by paying a premium for it was very wrong and dangerous. This was the perception of students fighting for free education.
The government of President Jacob Zuma started to realise that what they now were confronted with in the student movement was much more serious than they initially assumed. The call for free decolonized quality education was marked by the eruption of violent protests around university campuses. The main reason violence was adopted by students in their protests was because of the decision by government to militarize the university campuses. Students saw the entry of police on campuses as part of the government strategy to stop the call of free education by the students. University campuses were transformed into ‘police stations’ because of the high number of police officers and private security guards around campuses. Others started to blame the ANC government for using the same strategies as the Apartheid government under PW Botha, by using state security as the solution to bring stability. For the rest of 2016, universities adopted the strategy to fight with fire. The student protestors took fire to lecture rooms, cars, computer laboratories, statues, university paintings, administration buildings, residences, and the offices of vice-chancellors. The justification behind their actions was that the only language the government understood was violence and burning.
Throughout the South African history, intellectuals and academics have often played a key role in struggle for the modernisation of societies, national liberation and social justice. But the question was why they now failed to play a role in this call for free education? Is South Africa facing the pitfall of the intellectuals or had they forgotten that they still have to play part in solving this social inequality? The students continued to question why do the poor have to pay for higher education in the country that is blessed with natural resources? The corruption and maladministration in the government was some of the reasons why the government failed to provide for free education.
Free education in South Africa is a constitutional right. So, when students protest they indeed fight for a noble cause. South African politicians routinely sell dreams and make promises of free education to the electorate. The call for free education by the students was a way to remind the ruling government what they promised the poor and the students. When President Zuma was re-elected for his second term as the president of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in Manguang, he mobilized support under the message of ‘delivering free higher education.’ Even the historic documents of the ANC indicate that the ANC supported free education. The most celebrated ANC historic document ‘The Freedom Charter’ is the testimony that the ANC had been promising the people of South Africa free higher education. The Freedom Charter was adopted at the Congress of the People in Kliptown on 26 June 1955. In this document under the heading ‘The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Opened’, the fourth line highlights that “Education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children; Higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit.”
At the close of the 2016 academic year, government officials, heads of universities, leaders from the private sector, and civil society met once again to find ways for providing free high quality education. An agreement was concluded to fully fund poor students and to provide aid to the missing middle class students. These are students who are not rich enough to pay their fees and on the other hand not poor enough to qualify for state funding. In 2017 President Zuma established a commission to find ways to provide for free education. The commission submitted the report in the middle of 2017, but even now the president has not made the report public. As the nation is waiting for the response from the president, October 2017 witnessed different universities announcing that they will increase fees by 8 percent. The University of Stellenbosch was the first to make the announcement of an 8 percent increase followed by the Central University of Technology in the Free State with the same percent. The country can expect that all universities around the country will follow the same pattern of 8 percent.
The nation has to wait to see if the students will submit or challenge this decision of increase fees by 8 percent. The question that is dominating the conversation around South Africa is what the students will do to put pressure on the president to make the report public. Only time will tell, whether the country will go back to the phase of students closing campus around the country or whether the president will give them what they what - free education.