Student protests: This is only the beginning
- Greg Nicolson
- South Africa
- 21 Jan 2016 12:15 (South Africa)
It was always likely the student protests would continue at universities in 2016, after #RhodesMustFall and #Fees Must Fall closed campuses last year, but who knew they would start during registrations? There has been an improvement in response from varsities and particularly government, but without radical reform the fire will continue to burn. By GREG NICOLSON.
Last year's #FeesMustFall protests were only partly about fees and university students. Planned varsity fee increases kicked off the demonstrations, but the reason they gained traction was because of the issues raised earlier in the year during the #RhodesMustFall protests at the University of Cape Town. Over 20 years into democracy, black South Africans continue to experience exclusion in their own country – from primary school, to high school, to the university, to the workplace, to the spatial geography of their communities. It extends to everyday interactions in the streets, supermarkets and restaurants.
Young South Africans were sold a “miracle” and given a life of exclusion and disadvantage. It's no wonder that university students, on the cusp of maybe breaking through class barriers, who still and will continue to face racial barriers, finally said they have had enough. In doing so, when the protests spread across the country, they forced the rest of us to see South Africa for what it is – a structure, that while has seen relative peace and marginal benefits to many, such as the delivery of housing, electricity and water, looks like the same body in a new outfit. If you're black, chances are South Africa is still a hard place to live.
In the student protests, the antagonists were university managements and the ANC government. This year those characters have shown they recognise the broader implications of what is going on. Last year, Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, was notable during the demonstrations only for his absence. Perhaps he didn't know what to do; perhaps he told himself a “third force” was in control, so he doesn't need to intervene; maybe it was just too hard for the Communist Party leader to face students calling for free education. But it took President Jacob Zuma to announce a zero-percent increase on fees, to show any significant government response, and even that failed to stop the protests.
This year, government and Nzimande have been proactive. On Wednesday, the Minister met with university vice chancellors, and along with National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) chairman, Sizwe Nxasana, he said a new model catering to the “missing middle” would be piloted next year. The students of the “missing middle” can't afford fees, but don't qualify for NSFAS, similar to those residents who don't qualify for government housing, but can't get bonds to buy a house. Ironically, the group often includes those who have benefited from democracy after moving into the middle class. The details of funding the “missing middle” at universities however appear still to be worked out.
Wednesday wasn't the first meeting Nzimande has held this year on university funding. Last week he spoke to student representative council (SRC) leaders from across the country, and, with those who didn't walk out of the meeting, he resolved to appoint a group of stakeholders to address the burning issues, which for students have largely been a commitment to no fee payments at universities, the scrapping of historical debt, and a strong commitment towards implementing free education.
The government might have committed R2.3 billion to covering most of the fee increases for 2016, but Zuma cannot simply decide to make tertiary education free for all, especially considering the high costs involved, the criticism of his commitment to sound financial management, and South Africa's poor economic growth. Instead, the President has appointed a commission of inquiry to look at the arguments for, and financial feasibility of free higher education. A commission of inquiry is the President's go-to reaction on issues of importance, and like other commissions this one may not come to much and might take an inordinate amount of time. But it shows Zuma, at least, realises that the demands are important, and he has to be seen taking them seriously.
Outside of government, universities and students also have increased their proactive responses. The University of Witwatersrand, which saw protests interrupt registrations this year, and its SRC agreed on a plan to cover historical debt for students. The deal, which will see the university covering some debt, fundraising, and lobbying of the Gauteng government, means thousands of students who could not register before, would now be able to do so for this year.
Tshwane universities have been hit by protests in 2016 from the workers demanding insourcing, and there appears to be progress on that front. At many varsities in 2015, the outsourcing of workers remained a key issue after Zuma announced the no-fee increase, but already the University of Pretoria has, after only days of protesting in 2016, agreed to a timeline to employ workers and provide them benefits. There's no doubt that the student demonstrations of 2015 shifted the conversation, and the state and universities already appear more willing to enter into negotiations and make concessions.
However, If the government and the institution of higher learning think the demands will stop there, they are wrong.
Groups of students who want to continue protesting, and the SRCs, who for now, are ready for the academic year to go ahead agree on one thing: they want free education. Free education isn't just about allowing all academically qualifying students access to what they deserve. If the Cecil Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town is a symbol of the system that dehumanised, oppressed, and excluded black South Africans – a system which continues to reduce their lives – free education is a symbol of promised hope. Realising the influence of students, government and the universities might have put out the fire, for now, but while the majority continue to be marginalised in their own country the fire will continue to burn. Putting it out will require radical reform. DM
Photo: #FeesMustFall protest in front of the Union Building, 23 October 2015 (Greg Nicolson)