#FeesMustFall: Why the South African Protests Are About More Than Tuition
By Pooja Kanabur
In October 2015, the University of the Witwatersrand, the third oldest university in South Africa, announced a fee increase of 10.5% for the following academic year. The university justified the increase in tuition on economic grounds, specifically noting inflation and declining government funding for higher education. The last thing anyone expected was an uprising. However, that is precisely what happened. South African students staged a series of major demonstrations protesting fee increases, ultimately resulting in President Jacob Zuma’s announcement that there would be no fee hike in 2016. Students celebrated this announcement, seeing it as a major win for their cause.
Unfortunately, the movement suffered a setback on September 19, 2016 when the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, announced that universities must decide for themselves whether to raise fees in 2017, but that any increase they impose should be capped at 8%. Student groups took to demonstration once again. Since the announcement, protests have raged across university campuses—classes have been canceled, buildings have been set on fire, and police are clashing with and even arresting students.
This is not the first time that tuition fees have sparked controversy in South Africa. However, while students at historically black universities have been resisting annual tuition raises for years, this is one of the first times their sentiments have been echoed by their peers at historically white and well-off schools, including the University of the Witwatersrand and Rhodes University. Protesters believe that the new fees would put a university education out of reach for many black students, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
And thus, we can see how these protests are about more than just tuition. In a country where more than half of population lives below the government-defined poverty line and the average white person’s income is about six times the average black person’s income, there’s no doubt that inequality is still rampant. Students continue to claim that South African universities are prohibitively expensive, shutting out a disproportionate number of black students from access to higher education.
However, this problem doesn’t end at fees. Rather, the issue revolves around a lack of transformation at South African universities more than two decades after the end of apartheid. According to activists, “universities are part of a broken system that has failed to address South Africa’s enduring inequalities.” Like other movements seeking to redress systematic inequality, the Fees Must Fall movement calls for the “decolonization” of universities, specifically the removal of symbols of oppression and colonialism from campus and a revision of the curriculum to acknowledge more influential black ideas and people.
As a result, changes are slowly being made to the South African education system. Most significant was in 2015 when a statue of Cecil John Rhodes—a nineteenth-century diamond magnate, creator of the Rhodes Scholarship, and an outspoken British imperialist and white supremacist—was removed from the University of Cape Town campus after a month of protests. Though it took some time, the university administration finally acknowledged the students’ argument that “the statue represented the university’s institutional racism” and “its foundations of the back of black suffering and pain.”
However the toppling of a statue is just one thing—the toppling of an institution is another. Though students are fighting for reduced, even free, tuition, they are also protesting for a deeper cause. For many students whose parents fought apartheid, this issue has become a way for them to finally attain the equality their predecessors worked so hard to achieve. With time, the #FeesMustFall movement has the potential to change the social and political conditions of South Africa forever.