No end to student protests in South Africa | Africa on the Move | DW | 05.10.2016
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South Africa

No end to student protests in South Africa

Student protests in South Africa for free higher education continue unabated at most universities throughout the country. Some of these protests have resulted in violent clashes.

Confrontation is taking place between the protesting students and the police on the one hand and between opposing groups of students on the other. This is the third week of demonstrations since Minister of Education Blade Nzimande announced an increase of student fees in 2017 by almost eight percent. Protesting students insist that there should be no fees whatsoever. They base their demands on what they say were promises made by the government.

The most seriously affected universities on Thursday were Cape Town, Western Cape, Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in the city of Port Elizabeth. Protesting students threw petrol bombs and clashed with police and security guards in Cape Town. At the nearby University of Western Cape students marched from building to building to disrupt lectures. They sang songs of protests and warned that demonstrations would not stay peaceful.

At the University of the Witwatersrand students leading the "fees must fall campaign" confronted a group of students carrying placards and banners with the message: "take Wits back". These students want to go back to classes.

Watch video 01:08

Violent clashes between students and police in South Africa

Divisions along racial lines

Shirona Patel, spokesperson of the University of Witwatersrand, acknowledges a racialization of the protests, but denies that this is limited to universities: "I think we see divisions along racial lines throughout the country. At Wits University we have people from all sides participating in both protests. However, the protesting students have the loudest voices." Patel says the university has received thousands of mails from parents and students wanting to go back to classes.

At the University of South Africa students were just as vocal in their demands for free education. Some, like accounting student Nkululeko Makuwatjuwa, claimed that they were being forced to resort to violence because the authorities were not listening to them. "They are like pushing us to apply force against them," he claimed.

Lindele Mchunu is a law student from a rural area of KwaZulu-Natal. She too believes education should be free and promises to go on supporting the protesters: "Actually, we are mandated by the students. So we will do whatever they want us to do." But she also insists that all efforts are being made to keep people from vandalizing the school. "This vandalizing is not good," Mchunu believes. For 21-year-old science student Senzo Mbongo the protests are necessary "because the government has promised that studies will be free. This is for a good cause. I think the government should play a role in stopping all of this." 

Hopes for a compromise

Social activists and leaders have now established a "development group" to help break the stalemate at the universities. Spokesperson Shirona Patel told DW that already an agreement was reached at mediated talks on Tuesday: "Academic work will resume on Monday, October 10; the police will be moved out of the campuses to the perimeter; and there was an express commitment from all parties that there would be no violence, no destruction of property and no risks to the lives of students and staff." On Friday a general assembly at the university will discuss the issue of free university for the poor and the middle classes, Patel added.

Khaya Sithole, a chartered accountant and social activist, is the leader of the development group, which includes business people and financial experts. He believes that the State could raise the funds to provide free tertiary education. The group has drawn up a model to show how free education can be financed. Sithole wants to mobilize businesses to help fund education for the less privileged. But he also calls on the government to act: "Our country spends 0.7 percent of gross domestic product on higher education and 1.2 percent on the military. Now, we have not been to war since 1989." According to Sithole, the government needs to change its priorities.

A student walks through the remains of a burned out lab

Violent protests have resulted in destruction

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan supports the concept of free education. But he points out the government's inability to find the necessary funding, especially in the present economic climate. Nevertheless, Gordhan remains confident that one day education will be free for the poor: "Our view is that those families who have an income and can afford to pay for university fees as they do in most parts of the world should pay. Those who can afford to borrow money from a bank and repay the money once they find a job should do so as well. So I think we require a collaborative effort from all concerned."

Chronic underfunding

Shirona Patel agrees with this official stance but points out that the major issue is a chronic underfunding of higher education in South Africa. Also, she says that "students want free education now, and we don't think that is viable." Patel adds that free education will have to be introduced gradually, "meaning in two or three years."

Continuing protests at several universities are raising concerns that students will lose out academically in 2016 if they cannot go back to classes soon. Some also worry that new students will not be able to enter universities in January if violent protests are not stopped.  


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