Government freezes fees as student protests mount

After a week of mounting countrywide protests, South African university students will not be paying more for tuition next year. And they will be given extra time to write their end-of-year examinations. But the push for free higher education for poor students is far from over.

That was the message from students interviewed at the Union Buildings in Pretoria on Friday, shortly after President Jacob Zuma’s announcement that there would be a zero increase in university fees for 2016.

The opposition Democratic Alliance said in a statement that the 0% increase was “a welcomed temporary relief for students, but…not the solution to the funding crisis that is at the heart of the problem”.

The ruling African National Congress, or ANC, commended the students who took their “reasonable and understandable demands for access to education to the Union Buildings” – the headquarters of government in Pretoria, which is South Africa’s executive capital.

But the party noted that the actions of a small grouping of students who engaged in “unruly” actions undermined the “revolutionary intent and progressive demands of the students who, to date, have conducted themselves in a largely exemplary manner”.

Unprecedented protests

Zuma’s announcement followed a lengthy meeting between himself and university vice-chancellors and council chairs to resolve the stalemate on university fee increases, which in the last week has seen unprecedented student protest action across the country that shut down the sector and challenged the authority – both moral and political – of the ANC government.

Zuma said on Friday that the government would lead a process that would go “wider” than fees. It was also agreed that universities’ examinations period would be extended to compensate for the time lost.

“In the long term, there is a package of issues that was raised at the meeting that needs to be followed up. These include free education, institutional autonomy, racism and what the students call ‘black debt’, to mention a few,” said Zuma.

“The presidential task team that had been established to address funding mechanisms will be broadened to look at all these and other broader transformation issues affecting higher education.”

Thousands of students started to converge on the Union Buildings as early as 07h00 to hear the outcome of the meeting, according to television reports. Several other marches took place simultaneously around the country in anticipation of the findings.

It was at around 15h10 that the president’s brief announcement finally came, but Zuma angered students by remaining inside the Union Buildings instead of directly addressing students as they expected.

Television footage showed increasingly agitated students being forcibly dispersed, with police firing stun grenades and tear gas into the crowd after a small group at the frontline started throwing stones at the police.

Intensifying student protests over proposed fee increases – mostly peaceful but some involving destruction of property – have taken place across the country, and by the end of last week universities were closed during the critical end-of-year examination period.

The scale of the student action necessitated the intervention of the state president in what has been described as the most significant mass action the country has seen since democracy in 1994.

A changed sector, under pressure

Since then, university enrolment has more than doubled while government funding per student has declined from R20,187 a year in 1994 to R16,764 in 2014. Student fees over the same period have increased at rates often in excess of inflation.

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme, or NSFAS, which has supported 1.5 million students to access higher education, has been described by Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande as the one of the greatest achievements of the ANC government since democracy. But it is still unable to meet demand from young South Africans.

Professor Narend Baijnath, CEO of the Council on Higher Education, or CHE, told University World News that for universities to be credible and maintain or build their reputations, investments in human capital, capacity development, infrastructure, learner support, ICTs, curriculum development and learning resources were “necessarily relentless".

“There is a general sense that more pressure on the finite resources of universities through brutal cuts to essential infrastructure, capacity, resources etc will in the longer run threaten the quality of our higher education, and undermine the stature of our qualifications,” he said.

In a statement, the CHE welcomed the outcome of the engagement between the president and stakeholders but said it was of the view that “the ideal of free higher education for all will take time to be realised in toto, given that education competes with other pressing areas of need for a share of the resource pool”.

Protest chaos

Last Wednesday, the focus of the protests moved from Johannesburg to Cape Town as thousands of students from the University of Cape Town and Cape Peninsula University of Technology rallied outside parliament demanding that “fees must fall” while Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene delivered his medium-term budget statement to the national assembly.

Twenty-nine students were arrested, according to reports, after the parliamentary gates were pushed open and riot police fired stun grenades into the crowd. Nene’s speech – which contained no mention of the issue of student fees – was delayed, and increasingly disgruntled students refused to allow Blade Nzimande to address them, drowning him out with chants of “Blade must fall”.

Among the students arrested were the sons of ANC struggle stalwart Reverend Frank Chikane and the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Thabo Makgoba.

Sparked by a proposed 10.5% increase at the leading University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits, the protests spread rapidly to at least 18 of South Africa’s 26 universities last week following a unanimous rejection by students of the offer – made after government met with university vice-chancellors earlier in the week – to cap student fee increases at 6%.

The protests have united students across race and political parties, and have included both formerly advantaged (white) and disadvantaged (black) institutions. Students have rejected attempts by political parties to hijack the protest, attracting broad support from civil society and religious bodies.


As pressure from students against the ANC government mounted, senior members of the Tripartite Alliance – comprising the ANC, South African Communist Party and national labour federation COSATU – expressed support for the students’ demands, with the ANC reportedly encouraging its members to join Friday’s march.

This move was described in a tweet as “fake solidarity” and a “gross insult to us all” by political commentator Max du Preez. It is, after all, the ANC government that has been responsible for the precipitous decline in university funding for the past two decades.

Meanwhile, hundreds of South African academics signed a statement calling on vice-chancellors, Nzimande and the finance minister to “do what is required” to make higher education accessible for deserving students.

“The urgency of this issue cannot be overstated. South Africa needs a new national funding structure for truly public higher education now!” the statement said.

Expressions of solidarity also came from beyond national borders, with at least 800 South African students and alumni throwing their weight behind the student campaign and giving notice of a rally to be held on Friday morning in Trafalgar Square, London.

Representing 200 institutions from around the world, the statement condemned the use of violence on the part of police and security companies against protesting students and noted that access to affordable higher education was being “eroded” by governments and universities across the world.

On Friday, the universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch facilitated the lifting of court interdicts against protestors, with Cape Town Vice-chancellor Dr Max Price indicating in a communiqué that the institution would also work to have charges lifted against 23 protesters who were arrested earlier in the week.

Out of touch?

In a measure of how quickly the South African campaign spread, Nzimande last Monday declined to categorise the protests – still then largely concentrated at Wits – as a national crisis, arguing that the word “crisis” implied there were no mechanisms to deal with student grievances.

“We do have ways and means of discussing the matter,” the minister told a press conference.

But for the students, such “ways and means” have clearly been inadequate. Throughout the week students interviewed by the media have consistently claimed that their voices have not been heard; that decisions have been made for them, rather than with them. Some accuse the government of being out of touch with the daily realities facing most South Africans.

This deep-seated frustration had led to calls for Nzimande’s resignation by, among others, the opposition Democratic Alliance but also the ANC’s own youth league which believes his response to the crisis has been inadequate and tardy.

Particularly so, given the ANC’s 2007 resolution endorsing free higher education for the poor – a responsibility supported by the Constitution, which elevates further education to the status of a right and puts the onus on the state to make such education “progressively available and accessible”.

Nzimande has repeatedly said his ministry has put together and costed a plan for free higher education for poor students, but is without the funds to implement it.

Such a plan will need to take account of the high drop-out rate of university students. A report produced in 2013 by the CHE put the proportion of students dropping out of higher education before completing their degree at more than 50%. According to the report, finance is cited as a major contributing factor.

Where the additional funds required for the sector will come from remains unclear. However, as Baijnath noted, it was “unequivocally clear” that the solution to greater resource needs was not going to be “to pass the burden onto students, without provoking their wrath, and threatening stability at institutions".

“Institutional management and governance structures will need to apply their minds creatively to find solutions through austerity measures, curbing expectations as far as salary increases are concerned, and being prudent in the use of institutional resources,” he said.