By Faith Kiarie
For the second year running, South African university students continued the Fees Must Fall movement, taking to the streets to voice their demand for the free, decolonized education their government promised them in the 1995 African National Congress (ANC) freedom charter. Across the country, students have caused hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage to university property, police have arrested scores of students, and there have been numerous reports of excessive force and violence against students and university staff.
It’s unclear whether the students will get their way. The ANC government has shown a lack of urgency in resolving the crisis. Some in their leadership have called student protesters spoiled brats. As protest action intensified, the government provided little support to universities.
The ANC government has repeatedly said that free postsecondary education is impossible to deliver. While an additional $17.5 billion is required to fund free higher learning over the next three years, the government has only committed $1.2 billion to postsecondary education beyond the amount originally budgeted over the same period of time. While it’s above the amount originally budgeted, it still isn’t nearly enough.
For 2017, the government has recommended that universities increase their fees by no more than 8 percent and has pledged to cover this increment for students from poor families and from the “missing middle,” households earning less than $42,000 a year.
These announcements were met with mixed reactions. One of the main concerns is that it took several weeks of protest for the government to come up with the additional $1.2 billion. For weeks, the administration lamented that there was no extra money in government coffers. Last year, the same government also spent weeks refusing to freeze fee increases for students before eventually announcing that it would find the money to cover such a freeze. This recurring shift of goalposts affirms what students already suspect to be true: The funds can be sourced, but the government has neither the will nor the vision to make postsecondary education accessible and affordable for all.
Another problem is that instead of funding the universities directly, the government will channel the money through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). NSFAS is infamous for corruption and mismanaging funds. It remains to be seen whether funding will reach the most vulnerable and desperate university students come 2017.
Furthermore, some feel the definition of the “missing middle” isn’t satisfactory. The amount of money that a family earns shouldn’t be the only factor in deciding which students receive financial support. What of the number of dependents in the family? What of the financial obligations a family may have?
Unlike during last year’s protests, public support for the Fees Must Fall movement has been dwindling. Even though people sympathize with the plight of the students, they don’t condone the destruction of property. Media coverage of the protests, which sometimes turned into riots, has painted students as instigators of violence. To the public, it seems that criminal elements are intrinsic to the fabric of the movement.
Student leaders are well aware of the danger of a lack of public support and are monitoring the situation closely. They know that their adversary, the government, has unlimited resources and could effectively crush the movement. It’s vital that they keep the public as an ally if the government is to be kept in check.
Nevertheless, many have asked why things have gotten this far without some kind of resolution. Recent South African history, from the Rhodes Must Fall movement calling for the removal of Cecil Rhodes’ statue from the University of Cape Town to the Marikana massacre, when police opened fire on protesting mine workers, has shown that in order to be heard, you have to protest and disrupt the natural working of things. People pay attention when things are torched and when bodies are hurt. As a case in point, the government, both this year and last, only meaningfully engaged with students and other stakeholders after weeks of demonstrations.
The biggest losers in this equation, for the moment, are the universities. The state has left them out to dry. It is the ANC government that promised free quality education for all and then sat on its hands for 22 years. Over the last two decades, it has consistently reduced government funding for higher institutions—while encouraging universities to admit more students—which led them to shift operational costs to their students. And now, as university rectors are slandered and campuses set alight, the government is keeping a safe distance.
It’s painful to imagine that because of this crisis, highly-qualified and much-needed academics might pack up and move on to “greener” posts outside the country. No one could blame them if they did.
Will Students Get Their Way?
It isn’t clear, given the ups and downs of the past two years, whether students will come out on top. What is clear already is that as a young, disadvantaged South African, one has to overcome countless obstacles to complete basic education, let alone get into a university. Even then, the tuition, accommodation, food, and textbook costs are often too much to bear, and the constant cloud of not being able to afford to complete one’s studies is an overhanging threat. Many student leaders have come from nothing, and after coming so close to grasping an opportunity for a dignified life for themselves and for their families, it’s hard to imagine that they will yield without any real delivery of promises to an accessible and affordable education for all.
Beyond the determination of the protesters, the ruling party has already started paying dearly at the polls because of its disconnect with the country’s youth. Stall as they may, they will eventually have to actively listen to young people, especially concerning the issue of education, in the years to come. The writing on the wall is clear: The government can either put long-term plans in place that will lower the cost of university to a level that people can afford, or live to see the ANC fall from power.
Faith Kiarie recently completed an honors degree in finance at the University of the Western Cape. She is interested in economic development in Africa, especially that of women.
[Photo courtesy of Discott]