Letter from Africa: South Africa's student revolts

Students shout slogans outside the African National Congress ruling party (ANC) headquarters, on 22 October 2015, in Johannesburg, South Africa, during a demonstration against university fee hikes Image copyright AFP

In our series of letters from African journalists, film-maker and columnist Farai Sevenzo considers the power of protest in South Africa.

For 21 years democratic South Africa has been struggling to transform an education sector which had an inbuilt bias for over 300 years against the poor but mainly against those who were not white.

Protests in South Africa cannot quite lose the long shadow of those barbaric days, and the history of the nation has been so imbued with the actions of students - from the Soweto Uprising of 1976 to the beating anger of the 1980s.

Their defiance gets noticed and, depending on which side of the historical fence you currently occupy, these protests can be strangely effective.

Having felled the statue of British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes back in April, emboldened students decided university fees should fall too.

This past week, they took to the streets to complain at plans to raise university fees by between 10.5% and 12% in 2016.

In the wake of the demonstrations, President Jacob Zuma's government announced a fee freeze after emergency talks with university officials.

Apartheid and education:

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Following the 1976 Soweto Uprising, students in Cape Town refused to go to class
  • One of the main laws of apartheid was the Bantu Education Act of 1953
  • It prevented black children from getting a complete education
  • A black education department compiled a curriculum that suited the "nature and requirements of the black people". The aim was to prevent Africans receiving an education that would lead them to aspire to positions they would not be allowed to hold in society
  • Soweto Uprising - June 1976, police opened fire on schoolchildren protesting against a new policy to teach in Afrikaans

Why are students protesting?

Thousands of students, firstly at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and then across the country, with solidarity protests outside South Africa House in London's Trafalgar Square, reminded us all of the powder keg of history and inequality on which the nation is currently perched.

No matter how it is spun, the South African story has rarely been one of equal opportunity; instead "extreme income inequality" has risen to the fore as the phrase of utmost accuracy.

South Africa's Department of Higher Education and Training says the country's universities are already under-funded, while there is also a massive increase in those seeking to learn.

Government subsidies for every university have fallen while poor black youngsters - who may in many instances be the first of their families to reach such giddy heights of education as the undergraduate degree - feel a hike in fees will simply make graduation impossible for them and their kind.

Squeezed middle class

Put aside the pictures of trigger-happy police battling students as the summer air thickened with tear gas, South Africa's "born-free" generation has been born into a freedom bereft of economic opportunity.

The promises of 1994 and Nelson Mandela's presidency have not been realised.

The born-free generation:

And the very institutions to which young black men and women are flocking have themselves not transformed as quickly as the ghosts of anti-apartheid leaders such as Mandela or Walter Sisulu would have hoped, with prickly encounters over learning in Afrikaans at Stellenbosch and the obvious disparities in opportunities for white graduates.

Bursaries are given to families who earn below a certain level, but the National Student Financial Aid Scheme project is stretched in the face of overwhelming numbers.

South Africa's own economy has made it almost impossible for struggling families to share their limited resources with their university degree-chasing offspring.

Farai Sevenzo:

Image copyright Farai Sevenzo

"No-one should be denied an education because they cannot afford the fees, yet there is a lot of ground between that principle and the implementation of such ideals"

Even the newly emergent black middle class are as squeezed as those students whose raw anger on the streets last week spoke of having to raise tens of thousands of rand when a parent's only job was that of a domestic worker.

All around the world the issue of university tuition fees can damage governments and political parties.

But its possible incendiary effect on the ANC government is too close to the bone of economic deprivation, caused by decades of apartheid policies, for it not to be taken seriously.

It must pull out all the stops to bridge the gap between those who can afford higher education and the millions who need it to get along.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The students have expressed their frustration with all political parties

Wits University is said to have turned away 3,000 students who were academically qualified but could not afford the fees this year.

No-one should be denied an education because they cannot afford the fees, yet there is a lot of ground between that principle and the implementation of such ideals.

The government's announcement does not hide the fact that it has no idea where they are going to get the 3bn rand ($219m; £143m) needed to fund a "0% fee increase", as Mr Zuma put it, in 2016.

As worrying for him may be the anger directed at all political parties by the protesting youths, who came from varied backgrounds.

While the protests were reminiscent of the anti-apartheid movement, they also pointed to a future where white students stood in solidarity with their black counterparts, despite their privilege, and demanded that the government level a playing field on which all races must play.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The protests have cut across South Africa's deep political divide, uniting black and white students

The future for the nostalgic revolutionaries may also belong to a new kind of liberal white left, natural descendants of white liberation fighters Bram Fischer and Ruth First.

There is little evidence though to suggest facing down riot police in a #FeesMustFall protest will bridge the canyons of disparity between privilege and the aspirations of the growing numbers of young black undergraduates.

If such a united front persists, President Zuma needs to find the means or the money to keep disaffected youths on side.

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