The decision by Wits University to suspend a 10.5% fee hike following an all night student protest is a significant moment in student politics and popular activism in South Africa. Like the events at the University of Cape Town (UCT) earlier this year, when unrelenting student protest action saw the university council buckling to pressure to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes, Wits University gave in to student demands that the 2016 fee increment be halted. But why are students abandoning their studies to embark on protests on major societal issues? And who should take responsibility for lack of action on issues such as transformation, racism and student financial exclusion? By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
It is perhaps ironic at a time when the language of the Freedom Charter is again being popularised on the 60th anniversary of its formulation, South Africa is having to grapple with some of its key clauses on mineral wealth, land and education.
“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,” the Freedom Charter states.
At the ANC’s national general council (NGC) last week, it was decided that the resolution taken at the party’s 2007 Polokwane conference on higher education “must be fast-tracked”. That 2007 resolution was:
“Progressively introduce free education for the poor until undergraduate level”.
Speaking at a media briefing during the NGC, Science and Technology Minister and ANC national executive committee member Naledi Pandor said there were “strong sentiments” at last weekend’s meeting on the issue of free education. She said there was concern that “we’re not yet acting faithfully on the Polokwane resolution on financial exclusion”.
After an eight-year delay in implementation, you would think there would be more than just concern. Pandor said the NGC also resolved that the Department of Higher Education and Training should look at a regulatory framework for curbing massive fee escalations in the higher education sector.
And yet when student protests broke out at Wits University just days later over a 10.5% hike in fees next year, both the ANC and the Higher Education department were caught flat-footed.
The Wits Student Representative Council led fours days of protest action, which culminated in a sit-in until the early hours of Saturday morning when an agreement was signed to suspend the hike. Wits Vice Chancellor Adam Habib was prevented from addressing the students until the fee increment for 2016 was scrapped.
It was a showdown of note, and eventually the Wits council blinked.
The Wits protest had a spillover effect on other campuses, including Stellenbosch, UCT, Fort Hare and the University of Pretoria, where students are now also speaking out against fee increases.
Like with the #RhodesMustFall campaign at UCT, students buckled down until they got the outcome they wanted. The UCT campaign resulted in the statue of Cecil John Rhodes being covered in poo, defaced and eventually teetering above its perched before being unceremoniously driven away.
The Wits protest produced notable images of an exhausted-looking Habib sitting on the floor with student leaders, waiting for the impasse to break. There were other remarkable images of the student leaders from the ANC-aligned Sasco and the Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command toyi-toying side-by-side. This is clearly unlike other civic protests where communities take to the streets, have to face off against the police and eventually back off.
Students are taking responsibility for tackling issues that have a direct impact on them but are also major national issues that are left unchecked. The Open Stellenbosch movement, for example, has exposed racism on their campus and are trying to push for transformation in a highly resistant environment.
While transformation is a longer-term agenda, the fees issue needs to be resolved speedily. With just three months before the start of the new academic year, higher education institutions and students need the matter clarified as soon as possible. The Department of Higher Education and Training has said they were considering capping fees and investigating cost drivers. But that does not provide the immediate answers and stability the sector needs.
Sasco is already threatening a continuation of the fee protests. “We have taken a decision that the declaration of free education would have the signature of our generation,” Sasco Gauteng deputy chairperson, Sthembiso Ndlovu told eNCA. “We are happy about the progress that Wits university has done and we encourage our students not to lose momentum. On Monday we might be embarking on another revolution in University of Pretoria due to the fee increment that they have proposed,” he said.
The ANC Youth League (ANCYL) is also trying to play catch-up. In a statement on Saturday, the ANCYL said they noted “the perception that exists in some corners that we were not involved in the strike of Wits University”.
“We want to remind those that share such thoughts, that there is no way in which we will not support Wits students in line with our 25th national congress which resolved on free education. We wish to dismiss this notion for it seeks to cast doubt on the role of the ANCYL in the plight of students and their struggle,” ANCYL national spokesperson Mlondi Mkhize said.
There was this rather strange line in the ANCYL statement: “We respect the fact that our comrades mobilised students and did not allow ANCYL leadership to speak for their thought that this was going to cause division amongst students.”
So now that they are unable to claim a share of the Wits students’ victory, the ANCYL wants to get in on the action. The league said on Wednesday they want to “have tea” with the Ministry of Higher Education to remind them of their responsibility regarding free education. With the ANCYL’s new leadership and Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande finding themselves in opposing camps in the ANC, this is unlikely to be a friendly tea date.
The league also wants government to declare a moratorium on fee increases to prevent further disturbances in learning. In order to do that, the state has to provide institutions with some direction about how to deal with rising costs and the status of higher education subsidies.
Writing in City Press, Habib said with government subsidies coming in at below inflation, universities are caught in a “pincer movement”. “Universities have no choice but to increase student fees to remain sustainable and offer a quality education.”
“We are at a strategic moment in our history. We have to confront issues of student fees and the underfunding of the sector at a time where we have unprecedented levels of student activism at all our universities,” Habib said. He said the only resolution for a decline in student fees was through an increase in subsidies from the state or through new partnerships with the banks.
The stability of the higher education sector requires government to buck up as students ratchet up the pressure on institutions. What #RhodesMustFall, #OpenStellenbosch and #WitsFeesMustFall have shown is that students will no longer wait for things to evolve naturally. They have taken charge of their own destiny and student activism is undergoing a revival throughout the country.
With a higher education qualification being a requirement for gainful employment in South Africa, students can hardly be blamed for taking a militant stance on access to education. And for as long as political leaders delay the implementation of their own resolutions, civic radicalism is likely to grow.
This is not just about university fees or the lack of transformation at universities. It is about a restless youth with shrinking choices for their careers, limited financial options, impairment of their dignity and an uncertain future. The system is progressively counter-productive to their progress.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and for as long as the elected leadership flounders, the gap will be filled by those who grow restless with waiting. If the problems in higher education are not dealt with effectively timeously, the pockets of revolt with give way to full blown rebellion. DM
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine