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#FeesMustFall 2.0: Saftu will not hesitate to mobilise our 800,000-strong membership in solidarity with the students


Zwelinzima Vavi is the general secretary of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu)

We must together organise the civics, social movements and labour behind the banner of free education.

As a result of the #FeesMustFall protests, former president Jacob Zuma declared, in December 2017, that for “Poor and working-class [undergraduate] students, government will now introduce fully subsidised free higher education and training.” He defined beneficiaries as “households with a combined annual income of up to R350,000” (although “the Minister of Higher Education and Training shall revise this quantum periodically in consultation with the Minister of Finance”, which has not yet happened to our satisfaction). 

Zuma should have promised that this investment in our future leaders and for improved skills would apply immediately, for all current students at the time, thus addressing the huge crisis of inherited debt that leaves so many students now facing financial exclusion. He did not, and instead phased in the number of beneficiaries. 

In 2017 there were 226,000 students on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), most of whom were borrowing. That has risen thanks to the #FeesMustFall victory, so in 2020-21 there were 396,000 students mainly getting bursaries. In 2020-21, expecting free education, the student beneficiaries of NSFAS should have risen higher, to 426,000. In 2022-23, however, with austerity biting hard, NSFAS is mandated by the Treasury to fund only 431,000 students, a dramatic downturn in the rate of growth.

As a result of Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s 24 February 2021 Budget, which initially wiped out NSFAS support for incoming first-year university and TVET entrants at the last second, poor and working-class students find themselves fighting against financial exclusions in universities, and so now we join #FeesMustFall 2.0, since we must safeguard our precious young people.

Universities complain that inherited student debt – with figures ranging from R10-billion to R13-billion – is crippling. City Press reports that, as examples, the University of KwaZulu-Natal is owed R1.6-billion, Wits R1-billion, University of the Western Cape R445.7-million, Nelson Mandela R313-million, and the University of the Free State R300-million. 

University leaders make the point that failure to recover those funds will radically reduce their core function: education, research and service to society. In 2017, Zuma promised, “Government will increase subsidies to universities from 0.68% to 1% of the GDP over the next five years as recommended by the Heher Commission and in line with comparable economies in order to address the overall gross underfunding of the sector.” The short-changing starts there, with Mboweni obliged to spend 1% of GDP – about R49-billion this year – but he budgeted only R45.6-billion for 2021/22.

From whom should the money to pay fees and the accumulated debt come? Neoliberals say the consumer should pay; we say the state and society should welcome this investment, because two vital features of #FeesMustFall were its initial alliance with working-class staff at universities – whom in 2017 they succeeded in “insourcing”, thus doubling most low-income workers’ wages and ending casual-worker super-exploitation – and demanding a transformed curriculum that would decolonise education and put forward the intellectual agenda not of elitists and petit-bourgeois wannabes, but of our entire population including those not previously served: black, working-class, women, LGBTQUI, environmental, differently-abled and profoundly diverse. 

But what lies at the heart of the problem of funding in higher education?

Core of the problem

The core problem is commodification of education during a time of austerity. Regarding education as a commodity requires that universities charge fees to the end-user. The persistence of a fees model creates serious problems for the education system itself, and especially for our treasured poor and working-class students. On the one hand, the end user who cannot afford it accumulates debt, which in turn compromises the smooth running of universities. On the other hand, fees inherently disadvantage the previously and currently disadvantaged sections of our society, who are majority working-class and black. 

Working-class parents cannot afford the exorbitant fees charged by our universities.

For example, the minimum cost of an undergraduate BA degree (the cheapest) is R56,000 at UCT, R47,500 at Wits University, R45,500 at what is currently known as Rhodes, R44,735 at UKZN, and R42,664 at Stellenbosch. These fees are averaged from the 2019-20 academic year; the 2020-21 and current increases and the higher living costs must also be factored in.

Given the wages paid to typical workers in our country, the parents of these students can never afford these fees without the subsidisation of bursaries through NSFAS. 

The current monthly minimum wage of R22/hour is just R3,800/month – or only R2,100 for hundreds of thousands of Expanded Public Works Programme staff at R12/hour – and indeed, 70% of the South African workforce earns less than R6,570. Fortunately, the promise made in 2017 by Zuma – of whom we were no fan – was that if your parents’ combined salary was R29,167/month or below, there would be no tuition and living fees.

However, periodic protests around financial exclusions testify that his promise was either insufficient or has been regularly broken by the Ramaphosa government.

Funding schemes and neoliberalism

Neoliberalism is a particular form of capitalism that sees every sphere of social life as a potential site for capital accumulation. Health, education, policing, transport and other basic services are subsumed into the interests of capital and for those who can afford it, are provided through profiteering means. In this view of the world, the state is an instrument through which profit can be maximised as the upper classes opt out of inferior service provision. 

In essence, this view then provides the rationale for austerity, since the vast majority of budget-cutting zealots are from the upper classes. They egg on Mboweni to cut the Budget, which he has proudly done in sector after sector.

Unfortunately, the African National Congress chose to march down the path of neoliberal underdevelopment from 1996 when the Growth, Employment and Redistribution programme was imposed without consultation. The government then systematically cut subsidies to those state institutions responsible for the provision of public goods and services, from police departments to education and nearly everything else. Even the child support grant was cut, from its R135/month level in 1995 to just R85/month in 1996 – tellingly when it was extended to the African majority – although protests forced it back up to at least R100. Even at today’s R440/month, it is tokenistic, not enough to raise a child when the food poverty line per person is above R580/month.

As a result of this philosophy, teacher training colleges were closed during the late 1990s, and Vista community colleges were integrated into comprehensive universities. In 2020, Mboweni took the Budget-cutting to new heights: R9.7-billion from the anticipated allocation to higher education. In 2021, Mboweni announced a further R24.6-billion to be cut in the medium term, of which the NSFAS shortfall was R6.8-billion. 

Even where education will specifically prepare South Africans for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Mboweni has cut through the bone, into the marrow, for science and research bodies attached to the Department of Higher Education, Science and Technology incurred combined cuts of nearly R300-million.

The result of these and other cuts is a sudden uptick in financial exclusions. In turn, financial exclusions have generated an impressive fightback from students.

Workers must align with students

One very important political achievement during the 2015-17 #FeesMustFall campaign was exposing the limitations of fighting against fee increments, and the benefits of demanding free education. The political character of this movement was, however, contested ideologically. 

Irrespective of ideological contestations between the youth wings and youth allies of the ANC and EFF, #FeesMustFall achieved organisational coherence, in that for the first time, the movement transcended political partisanship and localistic campus/institutional allegiance, to build a national presence and create a united movement of students across all political divides. Though some in the SA Students Congress (Sasco) leadership – including State Security Agency plants – eventually sang in concert with the ANC leadership in labelling the most active students a Third Force commissioned by the CIA, other Sasco comrades defied this criminal categorisation.

The colossal achievements of #FeesMustFall, including its outreach to university students, was not given full respect by the rest of the country’s progressive forces. With a few exceptions, a key ingredient lacking in this unity was solidarity from the social, environmental and labour movements. It was apparent then that Cosatu, the Federation of Unions of South Africa (Fedusa) and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) were not willing to assist students, and before mid-2017 the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) had not yet launched.

Today, divisions are debilitating, not only because social solidarity has been slow. The resumption of #FeesMustFall 2.0 has unveiled confusion caused by party politics. For example, an instruction by Julius Malema to prevent the EFF Student Command marching alongside Sasco can only sow divisions, whose consequences will weaken the free education movement.

In the same breadth, Sasco now seems vulnerable to hijacking by ANC factions. Specifically, Zuma condemned the shooting of students with rubber bullets, but revealing the irony of his remarks, he himself had unleashed brutal state police machinery against #FeesMustFall activists, as he did against workers at Marikana in 2012. Yet today, his talk-left tsotsi lieutenants are attempting to rally a section of Sasco members, in what is plainly the pursuit of factional battles inside the ANC, not a genuine decommodification and transformation of higher education.

It is crucial that students do not play into partisan battles of their mother bodies, and that Sasco does not play into the internal factions of the ANC. Never forget, all the factions of the ANC – that is, the ANC as a whole – are responsible for the neoliberal path of underdevelopment. The Zumites already have demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt, that while they are now more prone to talking left, what we have always watched with disgust is their invariable drift when in power, walking right.


Students in 2021 have it tough because the atomising, fragmenting system they are confronting is cleverer than the 2015-17 enemies. The imposition of e-learning, the new court interdicts and these political divisions during an election year threaten to demobilise and drain the momentum of the powerful protests that are still peaking in this recent wave. 

First, the introduction of e-learning, which began during the late stage of #FeesMustFall 1.0, has meant the campus shutdowns have less political and strategic weight than in the prior decades. To insist on institutional shutdowns in the absence of community and worker solidarity could mean that the student strikes are only symbolic. The Fourth Industrial Revolution has this effect across society, and we must unite to find ways to properly contest the alienation and disempowerment that technology imposes, without rejecting its positive benefits. 

Second, the interdicts have meant that a number of student leaders and base activists are gradually removed from protest organising. The arrests and bail conditions, such as orders not to participate in “illegal gatherings”, can be debilitating to our precious young.

The logical conclusion is that we must together organise the civics, social movements and labour behind the banner of free education. The effective mobilisation of our other forces to support students would give the movement new momentum, and the potential to shut down the entire country’s main economic activities, to win the demand for free quality education from nursery school to higher education. 

If we mobilise in the numbers we are inherently capable of in labour and social movements and civics, our mobilisation will not be shaken by arrests, and the government will be intimidated to prevent our expressions of solidarity. If, after the murder of Mthokozisi Ntumba last week, the state again engages in brutal repression, it would be the equivalent of the ANC signing a suicide letter. 

Saftu will not hesitate to mobilise our 800,000-strong membership in solidarity with the students for free education. The struggle for free education is ultimately a working-class struggle, after all. DM



Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Rudd van Deventer says:

    What are the Unions and Vavi doing in this debate?
    These are the group who are threatening the government if they do not receive their third increase!
    What comes first? Students, union negiotated increases or health and social security?
    Sympathy all round bu there are limits.

    • Johan Buys says:

      What happened to part-time studies? Many of us had to walk that path. I’d support a scheme where first year part-time studies are free and only if you pass the whole first year do you get free full-time studies.

  • M D Fraser says:

    They all remind me of chicks in a nest, all screeching and clamouring to get the most worms and trying to kick the competition out of the nest, whilst looking all ‘holier than though’ at the same time.

  • Gerrie Pretorius Pretorius says:

    Mr Vavi your struggle can be for whatever you want it to be. Where will the money come from to pay for all the free free free free that gets shouted and demanded from all directions? When will you and your ilk understand that the theft by JZ and his cohorts has left the purse totally empty?

  • Merle Favis says:

    Apart from being watchful about ‘talking left’ and ‘walking right’, note the other trend in SA: middle class hiding behind working class to further their own interests. A significant no of protesters are middle class (I myself would absurdly qualify for NSFAS support). Zweli, refine your strategy!!

  • Miles Japhet says:

    And where, Mr Vavi, do you suppose the money is coming from to pay for this noble ideal, when your communist policies are destroying the productive and competitive ability of this country. Take the blinkers off your eyes and look at capitalist economic success stories where the poor have benefited.

  • Johan Buys says:

    The core of the problem is we can’t afford 500,000 youngsters mostly failing to complete largely irrelevant (no job prospect) degrees of their choosing in full time studies.

  • Chris 123 says:

    Another EFF style opportunist trying to be relevant.

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