The warzone scenes at the University of the Witwatersrand are almost a flashback to the past, when students protested against the barbarities millions of blacks were forced to endure under the fist of a white minority government, heir of a generation of European settlers.
Those were the ’80s, the days of apartheid. The student movement was the leader of anti-government riots at the University of the Witwatersrand, widely known as Wits. In 1986, it fought against the apartheid regime; these days, the students fight against the government of Jacob Zuma and the liberation movement of the African National Congress (ANC).
It was late May 1986 when police forces, armed with whips and tear gas, arrested more than 50 people in protests organized in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Back then, Wits was the scene of one of the worst days of political violence ever seen in one of the predominantly white colleges of the country. In the meantime in Cape Town, students were demonstrating against the Republic Day holiday, the 25th anniversary of the creation of the Republic of South Africa after leaving the British Commonwealth.
The final count of the protests Tuesday was the arrest of 31 students, on charges of blocking the university entrance and violent clashes with the police and the university’s security forces. After the attacks with stones and stun grenades, classrooms were destroyed, windows were shattered, and stones were scattered on the steps that lead to the Great Hall of Wits.
After two days of revolt, Wednesday morning the campus was militarized, with a heavy deployment of police and private guards. In the afternoon, the tension rose and the police fired rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators marching on Braamfontein Street, near the university, in the center of Johannesburg. Two students were injured.
Wednesday at least five universities, including the Wits, UCT in Cape Town, the University of Pretoria, the University of the Free State and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, suspended academic activities for the rest of the week.
The wave of protests that is hitting universities throughout South Africa was triggered by Monday’s announcement by the Minister for Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, authorizing universities to increase tuition fees by up to 8 percent in 2017. An increase — higher than inflation that currently stands at 6 percent — which will make university education unaffordable and inaccessible for many black students. On the other hand, the decision was welcomed by universities that complain that they are facing a financial collapse at the expense of their academic offer.
In fact, the government’s decision followed up on the report of the Council on Higher Education (CHE) on the development of a plan for the regulation of university tuition increases in 2017.
According to the CHE, if tuition costs are not increased, 19 universities would be in an unsustainable financial position, which, in the scenario of overall under-funding, would threaten the sustainability of the higher education system.
There are only two positive aspects in this story: the fact that the minister has confirmed that students who benefit from the subsidies of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) will not be charged the tuition increases in 2017, and the introduction of a second category of students who will be exempt from said increases. These two measures leave a wide group of students who will be affected: the missing middle. These are the students whose parents earn too much to qualify for NSFAS loans, but too little to be able to afford the tuition fees.
The announcement of the minister is certainly not good news for a significant portion of the student population.
The impact of the minister’s announcement could be observed the day after: the mass assemblies, protests and demands made by the student movement. They are no longer asking for 0 percent increases, but for a “free and decolonial higher education.”
A large group of these students, if not the largest, are part of the born free generation, that is, those born in 1994 or after. These young South Africans did not live under the regime of the white domination of the apartheid system, but they have suffered all the tragic consequences that the ANC has been able to solve only in part.
One of the main apartheid laws — the Bantu Education Act of 1953 — was intended to prevent blacks from receiving an education that would lead them to aspire to positions they were not allowed to hold in society.
It is no longer a matter of high fees. Rather, the entire political and economic-social system is being questioned. The anger and exasperation of the students is bringing the frustrations of the born free generation into the streets and college campuses. They claim those opportunities promised when apartheid ended and black families had an average income far lower than white families.
Universities have three main sources of revenue: government subsidies, tuition fees and private funding.
According to Ground Up, over the past decade, the government subsidy has declined as part of the total university income from 49 percent to 40 percent (following an increase in enrollments), while the contribution from student fees increased from 24 percent to 31 percent.
In practice, the overall public contribution consists of a block grant (grant for overall funding) and an earmarked grant (for funding to specific programs). Universities can spend the first largely as they wish, while the earmarked grant is intended for a number of specific spending areas, including infrastructure, education and the funding of the NSFAS.
During the period 2000-2012, the block grant went down from 88 percent to 72 percent of the total government contribution, while the NSFAS subsidy doubled, from 7 percent to 14 percent.
In 2012-2013, the government contributed just over 24 billion rand ($1.8 billion) of total funding to universities. This equals to 2.3 percent of total public expenditure and about 0.76 percent of GDP.
The student protests nationwide in 2015 are unprecedented and led to the formation of a movement for the “decolonization” of education known as #FeesMustFall and before that, #RhodesMustFall (for removing the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a late 19th century British imperialist, from the campus of the University of Cape Town, after weeks of protests during which Chumani Maxwele, a political sciences student, had tipped over the statue a bucket of excrement).
The movement has radicalized slowly but has remained unheeded, and it has inspired the formation of similar movements in other universities, which are especially asking for a (less white) academic body and study programs more representative of the diversity of their country.