Free education movement in South Africa

An unprecedented movement of student activism has been sweeping South African university campuses and cities. And this is because of the Fees Must Fall movement. The movement is a student led protest that began in mid-October 2015 in response to an increase in fees at South African universities. South Africa, by many measures, is arguably the most unequal society in the world. Working people cannot afford basic necessities and the academia in the Rainbow Nation remains white and predominantly male. This has led the majority to protest, calling for deep changes, writes Tibebeselassie Tigabu, from Johannesburg, South Africa.

On the third week of the shutting down of all prestigious universities and colleges in South Africa, three-fourths of the content disseminated in various media outlets, including the state-owned multinational corporation, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), E News Channel Africa (ENCA) and Ground Report is about “Free Education” protest. Every day there is an update on the protesters’ demands, the escalating anger of students, and back and forth between students’ representatives, the Ministry of Education, vice-chancellors of universities and other stakeholders.

Students demanded free, quality and decolonized education. They devised ways to have their voices heard, which include barricading entrances of universities, disrupting classes, building shacks outside the gates of universities (in the case of Cape Town University) and setting the library on fire. These acts forced the universities to shut down.

Hashtags #Fees2017 and #FeesMustFall were trending on social media and there were several debates on the issue. Similarly, Tuesday was no different for the protesters at Witwatersrand University with the exception of the backing presence of one of South Africa’s prominent personalities, Dali Mpofu, who is an advocate of the Economic Freedom Fighters Party. In addition, a famous singer, Simple Dana, black academics and parents participated in a march as a human shield between the police and students.

The group of protesters marched in different areas of the campus singing and chanting songs, including those from the apartheid struggle.

In addition to the social media, the various media of the country were transmitting live the chaotic scenes. Police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at protesters dispersing the marching students.

Angry protesters in return smashed a police car and responded by throwing stones. The nation watched in horror with police responses of shooting rubber bullets and dragging one of the student leaders, Mcebo Dlamini, in a failed attempt to arrest him.

It was not only the police; private security officers faced students armed with batons and riot shields.

The media’s transmitted live images, including the emotional naked protest of three women students saying they were tired of being brutalized. The three women, who were pleading, faced the police with their hands crossed over their heads in an effort to stop the violence.

The situation calmed down around evening after negotiations were held between the middle personalities of Dali Mpofu, together with students’ representatives and Vice Chancellor Adam Habib to have a general assembly on the future of the academic year.

These furious clashes happened after the university conducted a poll asking students if they wanted the academic program to proceed on Monday, which the majority voted yes. The student leaders and the protesting students did not agree with the polling system, which they said had errors like voting multiple times.

In addition to Witwatersrand, prestigious universities such as Cape Town, KwaZulu-Natal, and Pretoria were temporarily closed and more than 15 universities announced that they would indefinitely not resume the 2016 program that ends in November.

South African universities are the top universities in Africa, according to The Times Higher Education World University Rankings, global performance tables that judge research-intensive universities across all their core missions including teaching, research, knowledge transfer (industry outcome) and international outlook.

With these criteria, Cape Town University is ranked first, while the University of Witwatersrand in placed second. The third top university in Africa, according to the ranking, is Stellenbosch University. The income statements of UCT and Wits for the year 2013/14 reveal that they have a reserve of three to four billion rand each.

These rankings aside, the protesters of free, quality and decolonized education claim that the universities marginalized the vast majority of black students levying a burden of a heavy fee they cannot afford.

According to Africa Check, the University of Cape Town’s Bachelor of Medicine is the most expensive first-year degree at 64,500 rand (4,700 dollars) followed by Wits University 58,140 rand (4,204 dollars) and Stellenbosch University 51,326 rand (3,713 dollars).  The costs incurred by students with additional expenses keep on piling up. A proposal entitled “The Submission to the Presidential Commission of Fee Free Education by the South African Union of Students in June 2016” shows that, in addition to tuition fee costs such as residence, transport, books and stationery and food, the cost reaches more than 100,000 rand (7,235 dollars) in average.

According to the same report, the average salary of civil servants such as teachers, police officers and nurses is estimated to be 180,000 rand annually (13,006 dollars). In that regard, they cannot afford to pay the exorbitant fees.

The report states that the working class and missing middle class cannot afford to pay for the tuition being charged by the universities. The fee is even more unbearable for students who come from impoverished townships. Tebogo Ngwane, a third-year law student at the University of Cape Town who lives in Khayelitsha Township, was privileged to join Cape Town University. According to Ngwane, it is not a reality for those who are born in rural areas and township to go to prestigious universities. He said that what most kids do after high school is to find a job to help their families.

He says that the majority of black students are rejected by a system, especially by white lecturers, who do not consider black students to be as equal at their white counterparts. He graduated from his high school top of his class. His classmates were all black. When he got to the University of Cape Town (only 24 percent are black students) he felt the disparity. The percentage of black South Africans, who enroll in the University of Cape Town, only increased by six percent from 1994, which critics say is a result of the affordability of tertiary education and the poor education of South Africa’s primary and secondary schools.

He was faced with white privileged students who drove expensive cars, while the majority of black students struggled to pay their tuition and other fees. The lack of black faculty members also was another frustration. Alienated by the structure and the environment of this university, he felt unwelcome. So, participating in these protests is such a revolutionary act for the young student. He did not deny the fact that the current situation sent deep fear and anxiety to his parents who feared for his expulsion. His unemployed father, two siblings and grandmother make a living from his nurse mother’s earnings. It is not everyone who qualifies for the dozen available bursaries. He only got partial bursary where he has to raise the the rest of the funding by himself. He works part-time in a restaurant to cover his funding. In addition to that, he says his mother managed to raise a bank loan of 50,000 rand that only covered some percentage of the fees required by the university.

There are many students who drop out because of funding. Luckily for him, he made it this far with a good grade of 70 percent for all his modules. Access seems to be a very difficult issue where he would often stay awake all night in the computer lab to meet assignment deadlines. Since Internet expense is also another issue in South Africa, he takes advantage of free Internet in the university. He says that there are also students who made the library their home since they cannot afford residency. There are also reports where students have been found to be sleeping in toilets and working three jobs to cope with the exorbitant tuition fee.

While black student continued in their protests for free education in the University of Cape Town, at Wits University’s Braamfontein Campus things seem to have calmed down.

The university that was crowded with students, who actively participated in campus life, is almost empty with only a few students spotted here and there.

Wits Art Museum Café is also quiet with only a handful of students and staff members sitting in a couple of corners. On the black leather sofa, Sandiswa Sondzaba, an honor student in the Department of International Relations, sat while scribbling in her notebook.

A strong supporter of the free education movement, she says that the past couple of days have scored good results for the free education advocates. She says the result of the poll, where more than 77 percent of the majority voted to resume school, seemed to have weakened the free education movement without any resolution.

The involvement of prominent figures such as Dali Mpofu along with former Black Students Societies (BSS) presidents, including Professor Firoz Cachalia, who was the first president of the BSS in 1980, gave the movement momentum and legitimacy.

Whether the question of the students is legitimate or not, many question the feasibility of free education for all. The Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, recommended that universities and colleges should not increase fees to be not more than eight percent in 2017.  Nzimande said that the government would subsidize any increase for students with National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and provide loans for students in the “missing middle”; whose family income is less than 600,000 rand (43,128 dollars) annually. The students say that making the “missing middle”, which has costs of mortgages, electricity, water and other expenditures, pay one-fifth of their income for one student is not acceptable. In addition to that, many claim they are indebted with school loans they cannot pay and “free education” should be the last resort in resolving this.

This idea for Sondzaba is good in theory but says that it is inapplicable in the racially and economically divided society of South Africa. A CNN article entitled: “South Africa’s ‘fees must fall’ protests are about more than tuition costs”, which cites the national Statistics from 2014, reveals the huge disparity of wealth.

On average, the top 10 percent of wage earners take home 90 percent more in wages than the bottom 10 percent. In addition, the top one percent earn 393 times more that the bottom 10 percent. The article adds how inequality has increased since the fall of apartheid. The working class is staggering with basic necessities in which 60 percent of black South Africans earn less than 4,125 rand, which is below the poverty line.

The students took the freedom charter of the African National Congress of 1955, which states that 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 scholarship awarded on the basis of merit, and demanded the government to fulfill what it promised.

According to Sondzaba, free education is an issue that should be addressed by the government and is not necessarily a university issue. In that regard, she says that instead of the university and students should come to the table together and the government should intervene to find a sustainable solution.

“The government not executing its responsibility forces these public universities to be privatized. That in turn which excludes students, who come from an impoverished background,” Sondizab says.

According to her, the fees must fall protests started after a planned fee increase of up to 11.5 percent. This plan also brought other deeper issues, including decolonization and transformation of higher education institutions.

Since she is a daughter of a lecturer, she was fortunate in getting bursary but notices how people are struggling with fees. The issue of fees has become an anxiety for Thabo Molofi Mokoena, 27, president of a student representative council for the Wits Arts School and a third year student in the music department.

While government institutions are saying that it is not feasible to raise funding for free education, students propose various sources of funding from education tax, GDP contribution, private sector involvement and private individuals’ contributions, which brings the amount around 106 billion rand (approximately 7.64 billion dollars). That is why Mokoena strongly believes that free education is possible and only needs the willingness of the government.

The other issue that has been boiling around universities is decolonization of the universities and various institutions in the past couple of years. Sipho Schezi (PhD) (name changed), a lecturer at Wits University, says that the universities exclude black children not only financially but also in academics, aesthetics, knowledge, language, and other factors.

According to Schezi, these prestigious institutions are white and have carried on the legacy of apartheid when it comes to the structure, knowledge production and also language. In some universities, Afrikaans is the medium of instruction even for blacks that do not understand the language.

“The struggle is not only against fees; rather, it is against a systematic deeply structured white supremacy. One should assess what it was before apartheid and what changed with the fall of apartheid. Seeing no changes might scare someone,” Schezi says.

According to Schezi, few black academics are struggling with the mainly white-dominated institutions. Even Schezi, who has a doctorate from Harvard University, says that he has passed through various struggles.

A strong supporter of free education, he believes that education should not be seen as a commodity but rather a basic right for the majority of black children. This, according to Schezi, will bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots and will alleviate the problem of poverty.

Coming from a poor background, he has struggled in his undergraduate studies in Kwazulu Natal University. Initially, he did not qualify for the loan in the first year since there was no system to qualify right after high school.

So he was doing four jobs and was working at the university. After the second semester, he qualified for the loan, got tuition, accommodation and stipend money. He reduced the loans by working full time and staying at home to reduce costs. Sadly, after 15 years of his graduation things did not change that much for black South Africans. However, this concern is not an issue for expat students like the Ethiopian Eskadmas Yinesu, who is doing his doctorate in the Physics of Radiation Therapy at Witwatersrand. Fully sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the fees issue does not concern him; however, he is concerned for the other students who are struggling with exorbitant fees. With the academic year in suspension, like many others, Eskadamas also does not know how his first year PhD program will end but for now he wishes that free education would be granted for the majority.


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