South Africa has seen some of its largest protests in two decades in the last month as tens of thousands of students, many activists affiliated with the "Fees Must Fall" movement, faced off with police and university authorities to demand a cheaper university system.
Battles have been raging at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where officials used tear gas to subdue protestors, at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein and the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban and at the University of Cape Town.
"Fees Must Fall" began in 2015, after the government proposed increasing tuition fees. The students won their demands and the state froze fee increases. But, this year, the Higher Education Minister, Blade Nzimande, the General Secretary of the South African Communist Party, told administrators they could hike their tuition fees by up to 8 per cent.
Nzimande and ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe now claim that free and equal education was never the policy of the ANC government. This is simply untrue. The Freedom Charter, which has been the programme of the ANC since 1956, calls for free and equal education, as does the Constitution of the country (Clause 29 of the Bill of Rights). It is reinforced by resolutions of the ANC’s Polokwane conference in 2008.
The funding of higher education has been at the centre of debate and discussion since 2015, but it is part of a wider crisis in society. South Africa has deep economic problems — high prices and zero to one per cent growth projected for the next three years. There are high levels of unemployment (roughly 50% for the youth) and deep social inequality (the most unequal society in the world). The ruling party, the African National Congress, is eating itself apart.
Higher education in South Africa is chronically underfunded but the problem is also about the role of higher education in society and its relationship to the social system. A new consciousness of solidarity among significant numbers of youth speaks to an intersectionality of class exploitation, racism, other forms of oppression and patriarchy in concrete ways.
This political consciousness has expanded to include issues about privatisation and the outsourcing of work, the perverse pursuit of rankings and competitiveness by institutions, inequalities between universities and a desire to move the curriculum away from the dominant neo-liberal discourse.
Students have proposed a new funding model where the government contributes 50% of costs, the private sector 30% and student fees make up the remaining 20%. This, it has been pointed out, would bring the government’s contribution up to what it had been 16 years ago. It has also been pointed out that an estimated R50 billion a year to provide free tertiary education could be covered if the known amount of wasteful state spending and money lost to corruption could be halted. But, since it has become known that Shoprite (a major retailer) chief Whitey Basson was paid more than R100 million in the last financial year, there have been calls for a revised and progressive tax regime.
The student protest movement signals the beginning of the end for the ANC regime. Strangely reminiscent of the 1976 student uprisings that followed the 1973 Durban strikes, the 2015-16 students’ protest movement follows three years after the Marikana massacre and the state’s smashing of the Lonmin mineworkers’ strike with the murder of 34 miners.
While the students’ victory of no fee increases for 2016 will not overcome their major problem of eradicating the high costs of accessing tertiary education, it still represents a major victory and achievement for students and the entire working class movement. By directing their demands towards national government and building a non-sectarian national movement, the students have demonstrated tremendous political clarity and tenacity. The rest of the working class has taken notice and has drawn this lesson.