South Africa: Rising anger as mass student protests return

On Tuesday, 20 September, mass student protests erupted across the country after Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande announced that universities can raise tuition fees by up to 8% next year.

He also announced that the government will cover the increase of fees for households earning less than R600,000 per year. But this announcement by Nzimande misconstrues the student’s central demand, which is the scrapping of all existing higher education fees and for free education.

Almost immediately, students from across the country rejected the announcement by the minister. Throughout the entire week the pressure mounted as students brought one university after another to a standstill. Students at the University of Witwatersrand, University of Pretoria, University of KwaZulu-Natal, University of Free State, Stellenbosch University, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Tshwane University of Technology, University of Cape Town, and North West University started to demonstrate on Tuesday.

During the week protests also erupted at Central University of Technology, Nelson Mandela Bay University, and the University of Fort Hare. In Pietermaritzburg students from the University of KwaZulu-Natal marched to the provincial government. Police shot rubber bullets and released tear gas on protesting students at one of the residences on campus. At the University of the Free State academic activities were suspended, and at the Mahikeng Campus of North West University all classes were cancelled.

In Port Elizabeth, students from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University gathered at the South Campus to hand over a memorandum to the university management. They were then confronted by the police after they started marching to the Boardwalk Hotel Casino and Entertainment World, a playground for the superrich. The students were forcibly removed and stun grenades were thrown by the police when they entered the complex. Nine of them were arrested. The next day the students protested at the magistrate court and demanded the release of the “NMMU 9”. However, the court decided to remand the nine students in custody until 12 October.

FeesMustFall UWC - feesmustfall twitter.com--mlunguzaluxoloFeesMustFall assembly with students and workers at UWC - Photo: FeesWillFallBy the end of the week the majority of universities across the country were closed and all academic activities halted.

The epicentre of the protests is at Wits University in Johannesburg. On Monday students gathered for a mass meeting in the university’s main hall as Minister Blade Nzimande made the announcement. They immediately started to march across the main campus, rejecting the fee increases and calling for free higher education. Clashes erupted when private security tried to prevent students from entering Solomon Mahlangu House, a great hall which was renamed by the students for an activist who was murdered by the apartheid regime.

On Tuesday and Wednesday heavy clashes erupted between police, private security companies, and students. On Tuesday, students who were gathering at the university entrances were attacked by police, and several were arrested. On Wednesday police attacked a march in Braamfontein by Wits students who were heading to Rosebank and Boston Colleges. The police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades, and at least three students were injured. After students returned to the main campus, they were again attacked with grenades and rubber bullets because they were allegedly disrupting traffic. One student was burned after falling on a flashbang grenade. A fight then broke out as students retaliated by pelting the police with stones.

This was a completely unprovoked attacked by the police, as one student explains:  “I just started hearing sounds and shit, I ran back and that’s when things started to get real. I saw some people injured, like me, I am injured,” he said. “We are fighting for our freedom, for what we are here. They [the police] are being really, really radical and brutal to us and we haven’t really done anything, we were just singing and dancing.”

The current protests are a continuation of the Fees Must Fall movement which erupted in October 2015. On that occasion students marched to parliament in Cape Town, the headquarters of the ANC; Luthuli House in Johannesburg; and to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the seat of government. With students occupying the lawns of the Union Buildings, President Zuma was forced to impose a freeze on fee increases and find emergency funding to compensate universities for their loss of revenue in a desperate attempt to quell the rising movement. But despite these measures, protests have escalated. This is because they are rooted in economic realities that cannot be resolved without making a radical break from the system which created them.

This uneasy agreement was never going to settle the central demand of the students, a demand for free education, as one student leader explains: “Our mandate last year that we gave the government was to say go and engage the question of free education. Now they come back to us with fee increments. We can’t keep protesting for the same thing year in and year out.”

The shaky agreement of last year temporarily put the issue of fees on the back burner. In the meantime, the national movement unearthed many other issues which, in their totality, make up all the social and economic ills bedevilling South African society. As the issues of fees took a backseat, universities across the country became a hotbed of student protests for the whole year over other issues..

Right from the start of this year waves of protests have rocked one university after another. In February the University of Cape Town was shocked by a protest around the lack of accommodation. The protest was led by the Rhodes Must Fall Movement, which started a protest movement in April 2015 that resulted in the removal a statute of the imperialist Cecil John Rhodes from the university. To highlight the crisis of accommodation at the university, the students erected shacks and portable toilets on the very same site where the statue of Rhodes once stood, and called it “Shackville”.

On 16 February the UCT management called in the police, who moved in with armored personnel carriers to demolish the structures. Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the students, and five activists were arrested and effectively expelled from the university after a lengthy court process. This has sparked a campus movement to bring the expelled students back. In fact, on Monday, 19 September, the very same day that Minister made his announcement about fee increases, UCT was already on lockdown over this issue.

At Stellenbosch University students have used the the upsurge in student protests to highlight the appalling levels of racism at the university. Stellenbosch has notoriously deep historic links with the Afrikaner elites. To bring these issues to the fore, students formed a movement called “Open Stellenbosch”. They also made a short documentary called “Luister”( Afrikaans for “listen”), featuring black students recounting their daily experiences of abuse, exclusion, and racial discrimination at the university. The documentary caused mass outrage and sparked a social movement, which included the Fees Must Fall Movement, demanding the complete “purge of the oppressive remnants of apartheid.” The fact that students are still compelled to fight the same struggles of past generations is in itself proof that none of the fundamental problems which give rise to these issues were resolved by the so-called “democratic transition” of 1994.

Student protests had also been ongoing at other universities for weeks and months before the recent announcement. At the University of Kwazulu-Natal, students have handed the university a list of of 72 demands including fees, security, and student representation on the executive committee of the university. Similar scenes have played themselves out in other universities over the last few months, including Forte Hare, TUT in Pretoria, and the University North West.

Another aspect of the movement is that it has begun to establish links with workers at universities. This unity between workers and students has been able to achieve many crucial victories, like in the battle over the exploitative outsourcing practices at many universities. Over many years government funding of universities has been slashed to as low as 0.7 % of GDP. This has meant that universities have increasingly turned to big business for funding. In line with the demands of the private sector, universities were required to concentrate on the “core business” of preparing graduates for the labour market.  Thus, “non-core” services such as cleaning, catering, and gardening were outsourced to private companies which delivered the same services at a reduced cost. In this way public sector money was effectively used to subsidise the private sector to generate profits for businesses. Hundreds of workers were retrenched, lost nearly all their benefits, and had their wages cut.

When the “Fees Must Fall” movement started in October last year, they received immediate solidarity from university workers. The students immediately took up the issue of outsourcing and put it on the national agenda. In the days following the announcement by Zuma on 23 October, thousands of students refused to end the struggle, because the issue of outsourcing was not addressed. This was then the start of the “Outsourcing Must Fall” campaign. This movement forced universities such as UCT and Wits to commit to end outsourcing.

In November hundreds of outsourced workers at the University of Johannesburg started a wildcat strike which was sparked by the transfer of workers from one outsourced company to another without any consultation with workers. The workers’ demands expanded to address their working conditions generally, and to seek an end to outsourcing. This was the start of an almost three-week-long unprotected strike that ended with an agreement that committed U.J. management to end all outsourcing contracts by June 2017.

The campaign achieved important results in a relatively short space of time, with universities across South Africa committing in principle to end outsourcing, including the University of Cape Town, University of Witwatersrand, and University of Johannesburg. Victories were won at the University of Pretoria and Tshwane University of Technology, and battles continue to be waged at other universities such as the UWC and UKZN.

Taken in their totality, all these issues which the students have raised over the last few months including fees, police brutality, racism, exploitation, financial exclusion, unemployment, homelessness, and inequality are in fact, consciously or unconsciously, a fight for a complete transformation of South African society. In other words, the movement has revolutionary aims. Now, after a year since the movement erupted, the accumulated dissent over the past year has once again dialectically crystallised into a national movement.

The government's response to the demand for free education was to establish a presidential commision of inquiry to “investigate” the issue. Like the Marikana commission, this is the normal method the government employs when it wants to buy time and kill the momentum, whenever the pressure becomes too great. The commission has turned out to be a farce because there is general confusion about what it is mandated to do. The claim that it is supposed to look into the “feasibility” of free higher education is a farce. Free education is ANC policy. In fact, it was adopted by a resolution at the 53rd Congress in Mangaung, and should have been finalised in 2013. Students from across the country have rightly boycotted the commission, demanding that the only thing it should do is to work out models for implementation of free education.

Despite the measures taken last year, protests have escalated and are likely to continue. The main reason is that the pro-capitalist government cannot deal with all the issues the students are raising without making a radical break with the capitalist system. Even if fees are frozen at 2015 levels, a place at a public university is still unattainable for most, because fees and living costs are three times higher than the annual income of an average South African family. This is the meaning of the Fees Must Fall movement.

As was shown by the recent election result, this is a very weak government which has been rocked by one scandal after another in the recent period. This explains the heavy-handedness of the police. It is a manifestation of a weak government and of the ANC leaders’ losing their moral authority to hold the movement back. The ANC government is in the middle of a bruising factional battle which is threatening to tear it apart. This means that it lacks the internal cohesion to confront the protests by the students.

The government’s National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) is not a solution because, contrary to Blade Nzimande’s insinuations, NSFAS does not provide free education. It is a scheme which provides loans to poor students. In other words, in a country with 26% unemployment, it saddles graduates with massive levels of debt which they have to repay. The issue of scrapping historical debt is also a central demand of the students which the minister has refused to take up.

Nzimande has actually played a scandalous role. The minister, who is in fact the General Secretary of the “Communist” Party, has refused to take up the call for free education. He has actively tried to confuse issues. He talks interchangeably about “no fee increases” and “free education” as if they are the same things. He misrepresents NSFAS as free education, whereas it is in fact a loan scheme. The General Secretary of the “Communist” Party has even called the student protests “vandalism,” “anarchy,” and “thuggery,” and welcomed the arrest of students by the police!

Nzimande has been deliberately trying to divide the students by portraying himself as a defender of the poor. He opposes the central demand of the students for free education for all. But his position of “free education for the poor” is a false argument. It actually only perpetuates the status quo. His argument means that the rich, who can afford to pay for quality higher education, will continue to do so, while the poor will be forced into inferior “free” higher education. Nzimande sounds like he is saying something radical, but actually he is not. He is merely restating what is currently the case, in a different way.

The student protests let the genie out of the bottle a long time ago. The internal divisions in the ruling class, and the inability of capitalism to solve the basic problems which the movement has brought up, means that the protests will continue to flare up time and again. The root cause of the crisis is the capitalist system, which is incapable of resolving these issues. The students are correct to demand free higher education for all. But this demand can only be correct when it is linked to the expropriation of the country’s vast mineral wealth, the nationalisation of the mines, the banks, the private monopoly industries, and the means of production, under the democratic control and management of the working class.