By Charlie Kimber
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Protests against tuition fee hike sweep South African university campuses

This article is over 5 years, 3 months old
Issue 2523
Students protest at the University of the Free State
Students protest at the University of the Free State

Student protests against a tuition fee rise are sweeping South Africa.

The government tried to push through a 10.5 percent hike last year, but militant demonstrations, shutdowns and strikes forced it to make big concessions.  

But Blade Nzimande, the higher education minister and Communist Party general secretary, has announced a fresh attack. He said it would be up to universities to fix their own fee increases for the 2017 academic year—with a suggested cap of 8 percent.

The protests have been met by police violence, attacks by security personnel, rubber bullets, pepper spray and mass arrests.

Some universities have ejected protesting students from their accommodation while others have suspended classes or brought forward scheduled breaks in order to shut down.

They include Rhodes University, University of Cape Town, University of Witwatersrand (‘Wits’), Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Durban University of Technology and Tshwane University of Technology.

Videos on the student journalism Oppidan Press twitter feed shows students being dragged and shot at by police officials at Grahamstown University.

Oppidan Press online editor Leila Kidson said, “The university has been on a shutdown. Management and students were having discussions which were going well up to when they basically just said no to all of the demands.”

When students blocked lectures in the law faculty “police started shooting and students started running back on to campus,” she said. “But even once students had run away, police continued to shoot over the hedge.”

Kidson added, “A student tried to jump over a wall, but he was pulled back and dragged by police. I saw students shot in the head and the arm.

“People were bleeding.”

Management at Wits are holding a referendum this week on whether to reopen on Monday “if the appropriate security measures are in place.”


They released a statement that some students have denounced as provocative. It said, “If the majority of students and staff support the reopening, the university will call upon government and the police to meet their obligations to protect the university’s property.”

Hundreds of protesters from Wits and the University of Johannesburg marched through to the bosses’ Chamber of Mines on Wednesday. They were demanding that the giant mining firms help cover the cost of free higher education.

Former Wits student union president Mcebo Dlamini said, “Our generation is shaping the policies of this country.

“This is the beginning of us retaking what was taken from our ancestors.”

Some university workers joined the march. Cleaner Thandeka Mbhele said, “We are at one with the students—they helped us defeat outsourcing and now we are supporting them”.

The Communist Party has backed the fees announcement. It said it showed “that the government remains firmly committed to the progressive realisation of free post-school education for the poor and working class.”

But the Numsa metal workers’ union attacked the fees rise. It said the minister had “failed to consider the #FeesMustFall’s zero-fee campaign with the seriousness it deserves.

“Numsa is appalled by a supposedly Communist minister of higher education consistently maintaining that free education is not possible for the South African working class in a filthy rich country.”

The Cosatu trade union federation had already called a one-day national strike for 7 October over a range of issues. Whatever the intentions of the federation, this could flow into the student revolt.

The protests have deep roots. They are rooted in the anger at how little has changed since apartheid’s fall in 1994 and the continuing poverty of the majority of black people.

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