The Battle for Free Education in South Africa

As 2015 comes to a close, we look back at Ndumiso Daluxolo Ngidi’s piece on South Africa’s #feesmustfall movement. Ngidi examined the protests through South Africa’s historical context and argues that the discontent is about far more than rising education costs.

By Ndumiso Daluxolo Ngidi

The Youth Uprising
South Africa recently witnessed 10 days of student-led protests that shut down tertiary institutes across the country. Only comparable to the 1976 Student Uprising, the #feesmustfall protests have arisen as the biggest act of youth defiance and most influential student movement in the post-apartheid period. The movement, which started as a protest against a 2016 tuition fees increment at the University of the Witswatersrand (Wits), quickly mobilized into a nationwide call for free and quality education. So why is this movement comparable to the 1976 movement?
On June 16, 1976, South Africa witnessed an unprecedented uprising of black students who protested against a discriminatory education policy. This policy, referred to as Bantu Education—was designed strategically by the apartheid government to develop a generation of subservient and unskilled black workers. The June 16 protests made way for a number of defiance campaigns that ushered in the 1994 democratic elections and the hope for a ‘new’ South Africa grounded in “freedom, democracy and human rights.” The African National Congress’ (ANC) 1994 election campaign promised free education and a better life for all. These seemed plausible at the time, as the country was consumed with hopeful energy and fertile positivity. However, the desired “Rainbow Nation” was soon tainted by reports of corrupt government officials, the mismanagement of resources, and the lack of material transformation in the country.
Today, 21 years since the birth of a democratic South Africa, transformation has stagnated. A case in point is the lack of transformation in the higher education sector. This has lead to the #feesmustfall campaign and the national shutdown of universities and streets across the country. Superficially, this movement appears to be about university tuition fees, but fundamentally it challenges the lack of decolonization in and transformation of both South Africa and higher education. Free education has been presented as a goal of the ANC since it adopted the Freedom Charter in 1955. It has been promised at each election since 1994. So in 2015 education should, in fact, be free and widespread, but that has not materialized, leaving millions of South Africans on the outside looking in.
Black and Excluded in Post-Apartheid South Africa
Higher education has been constructed as one of the few ways South Africans can hope to escape poverty. Having spent 20 years waiting for the government’s promises of ‘a better life’ and ‘free education’ to materialize, South Africans are growing impatient. South Africa’s ‘born-free’ generation, those born in the post-apartheid era, are losing hope that these promises will be fulfilled. In short, they feel their liberation is not yet complete.
From listening to various students during the 10 days of #feesmustfall it became apparent that a number of issues they face at university are reflective of South Africa’s wider socioeconomic context. Students highlighted issues such as generalized unemployment, their parents’ low wages, poor opportunities for black youth, and poverty as major concerns. Students commonly experienced universities as anti-black spaces and cited the exclusionary and discriminatory attempts they felt universities used to block black students’ educations. Exclusionary language policies such as those applied at the University of Stellenbosch and exorbitant tuition fees at the University of Cape Town (UCT), are seen to have created hostile spaces for black students pursuing a tertiary education.
Interestingly, students from predominately black universities, such as the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), the University of Zululand (UniZul), and the Durban University of Technology (DUT), have made the call for institutional transformation and free education many times in previous years; yet they could not build national solidarity until now. This speaks to selective interests based on class in South Africa. It took the collective power of students from UCT, Stellenbosch, and Wits – largely perceived as privileged and white institutions – to draw national attention.
Students Have Spoken (And Been Ignored)
Debates around transformation and inequality surfaced earlier this year when students from UCT demanded that the higher education sector be decolonized. UCT’s #Rhodesmustfall movement, which called for the removal of the statue of Cecil J. Rhodes from the campus, demanded the university redress the racism black students faced at UCT and the institution’s lack of interest in addressing this and other issues affecting black students. The #Rhodesmustfall campaign lead to similar movements at other universities, all of which hold similar demands. The government responded by creating a task team to investigate inequality, racism, and the lack of transformation in higher education. However, the students felt that both the universities and the government were ignoring their pleas. A Wits student asked me: “Why has it become so easy for us to be ignored?” and another wrote online, “Our suffering was sanctioned by our universities and government. Our suffering was ignored by our universities and government.”
Students have felt increasingly frustrated as their hope for better education and futures are compromised by funding cuts and increased fees. For some, their anger could no longer be contained, and violent protest came to be seen as the only solution. Increasingly, university students have utilized violence to demonstrate their grievances when the results of peaceful protests and negotiations have been fruitless. In Sept. 2015, this violence escalated at UKZN with the targeted burning of university buildings and facilities. While the #feesmustfall protests have largely been peaceful, the state appears to be comfortable with inflicting violence against its citizens. Student protestors have faced tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, and stun grenades.
A stimulating aspect of these protests has been the students’ revival and connection to struggle heroes like Steve Biko, Robert Sobukwe, and Solomon Mahlangu, all of whom were strong advocates of Pan-Africanism and Black Consciousness, and who died in police custody during apartheid. Songs that praised these anti-apartheid activists suggest the liberation teachings and lived experiences of Biko, Sobukwe, and Mahlangu resonate with young people once again. The youth are turning away from leaders they feel have failed them and toward liberation leaders from the past whose voices have not been corrupted by the current government’s failings.
Moreover, this movement has been spearheaded by women—rather than simply supported by them. I also found the order and discipline of the students in cleaning up after their protests, maintaining study time in between protest action surprising. Students took responsibility for their actions and the consequences of those actions, which further legitimized their cause.
Beyond the Falling Fees
The #feesmustfall movement has opened up a chasm of opportunity for South Africans, young and old. It has given them a voice and a realization of their collective power. #feesmustfall has showed the country that its youth are politically engaged and invested in their futures. This movement has broken away from party politics that have characterized the country’s protesting space and allowed students to work in unison for their cause. This perhaps marks a new pathway in South African politics, where political loyalties will be rejected in favor of addressing issues affecting the black majority.
While the scramble for free education has opened up other national “wounds,” it has reflected the lack of redress by the government. The #feesmustfall movement is fundamentally more than a protest about university tuition fees—it is a political reawakening that has invoked the ideals of Black Consciousness and Pan-Africanist ideals to rekindle the pursuit of personal liberation. It has challenged the systemic inequality of South Africa and persistence of white privilege. Excitingly, it has reignited the possibility and hope for the realization of true democratic change and socio-economic equality.



Ndumiso Daluxolo Ngidi is a Masters graduate in Development Studies from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, His work focuses on youth development and mentorship, transformative and social change education, township youth and spaces, and issues around gender and sexuality. He is also a member of World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community- Durban Hub. Ngidi can be reached here.
[Photo courtesy of Ndumiso Daluxolo Ngidi]

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