Three, two, one…
That was the chilling countdown from over 300 students as they prepared to hurl rocks at private security on the steps of the Great Hall of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).
It came after days of running battles between police and students and eventually spilled onto the streets of Braamfontein in Johannesburg; a bus burned and shops were smashed and looted. The skirmishes got so out of hand that a rubber bullet was fired into the face of a priest. These were scenes reminiscent of the dark days before democracy two decades ago.
There was a nationwide shutdown, from the colonnades of the University of Cape Town (UCT) in the south to the deserted halls of the University of Mpumalanga in the north. For a second consecutive year, angry students, with their #FeesMustFall movement, launched a howl of outrage with demands for free education.
“We have nothing to lose. At the end of the day, we can barely afford to be here. My mom had to sell her car and downsize her house for me to be here. It’s tough out here and now [Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib] wants to police us if our calls aren’t legitimate,” says Malwande Mhambe, a final year international relations and political studies student.
The protest has escalated since 2015. It has evolved into a call for so-called decolonized universities that students say favour the privileged white middle-class.
“It is something that the youth has been calling for over 20 years now. We want more black students to be able to come to university and to have a better chance of participating in the economy,” says Busisiwe Seabe, leader of #FeesMustFall.
The violent campus backlash this year was sparked by Minister of Higher Education and Learning Blade Nzimande saying ‘those who can pay, must’ at the close of the Fees Commission, a government enquiry set to tackle the issue.
“We strongly condemn the actions of striking students who clearly do not want to see the completion of the academic program. They continue to disrupt and intimidate students who want to continue with their studies and in so doing deny the majority of students their right to higher education,” says Nzimande.
According to Statistics South Africa, university fees have soared by 80% since 2008. Government capped university increases at 8% for 2017. Nearly R300 billion ($21 billion) was allocated to education in 2016, making up 20% of the budget. This is almost double the amount spent on health.
#FeesMustFall The Tip Of The Iceberg
The students may call for free education, but columnist Max du Preez, argues what has developed is an “extreme race rhetoric”, whereby a “legitimate struggle against whiteness and white privilege is being overtaken by a populist assault on white citizens.”
“It’s time to face the reality. The ‘revolution’ on our campuses is not primarily about university fees any longer. Nor is it about the ‘decolonization’ of the curricula. The subtext, the unspoken agenda, is beginning to look more and more like an effort to create a mini Arab Spring moment and to turn the entire post-1994 dispensation on its head,” Du Preez writes in his column.
Many of the ‘Fallists’, including Wits Student Representative Council’s secretary-general Fasiha Hassan, claim that they are only reacting to police brutality. It is believed that a minority have been fanning the flames of destruction, perpetuated by media coverage.
The rubble and burning debris, on the streets of Braamfontein and on campus, tell their own story.
“Some of these elements, like the Wits protest leader Mcebo Dlamini and UCT’s Chumani Maxwele, are clearly narcissists playing revolution,” says Du Preez.
Western Cape Premier Helen Zille, a former journalist herself, says the protest needs to be tackled head on, without violence.
“We shouldn’t be shooting bullets at kids. We should have our police force with really good shields at all campuses protecting people’s right to study.”
Public policing has overreacted and inflamed confrontation.
“There is no other way out of this. What we have seen is negotiation after negotiation; the goal posts get moved every single time. It’s a deliberate strategy because people don’t want a resolution, they want a revolution and the challenge is you can’t assume people are acting in good faith,” she says.
The fight for free education is fuelled by frustration.
$400-Million Brain Drain
While the government scrambles to find money, universities say they can’t survive without fees. South Africa faces an even greater threat should universities close down – a crippling R5.6-billion ($400-million) brain drain if graduates are not allowed to finish the year.
The University of Pretoria’s Roula Inglesi-Lotz, Associate Professor of Economics, and Heinrich Bohlmann, Senior Lecturer, believe that the economy stands to lose $400 million if 90% of its 80,000 graduates do not take up positions next year. This is based on an Australian-based economic model designed by the University of Pretoria, in collaboration with global think tank, the Centre of Policy Studies.
Max Price, UCT Vice Chancellor, says if the university does not continue academic activity, it will have to close for the rest of the year. It means thousands of students expecting to work in 2017, including 400 of 4,500 medical students, will not graduate and create a black hole for the economy.
The University of Stellenbosch is also staring debt in the face. If it does not increase its fees, it will lose R50 million ($3.5 million) in academia and another R80 million ($5.6 million) on accommodation.
Students who have outstanding loans face hard times. Mmakatleho Sefatsa, a 19-year-old second-year education student and her family’s first graduate, is in over her head with R70,000 ($5,000) debt.
“Even if you don’t protest, at the end of the year the university is still going to send you a letter to say: ‘look you haven’t paid for two years, you have to leave’.”
Sefatsa is part of the missing middle – she is not poor enough to qualify for financial aid, and not wealthy enough to pay for her education.
The government plans to restructure fee payments based on students’ wealth: households that earn less than R120,000 ($8,500) a year won’t pay; the government will subsidize the difference in fee increases for the middle class, or missing middle, between R120,000 ($8,500) and R600,000 ($42,500); while the affluent will pay.
Undergraduate tuition fees at Wits can reach almost R60,000 ($4,200) a year.
Back at Wits, classes have continued under duress and with heavy police presence. The university’s spokesperson, Shirona Patel, says they will not give up.
“We need to finish the academic program this year and we need to have exams written. This will be our key focus for the next two weeks. Despite yesterday’s disruptions, we still had about half of our classes going and we’ll keep going every day until we get the academic program back on track.”
UCT, the University of Pretoria, and the Tshwane University of Technology, attempted to keep their doors open. Threats and escalating violence forced them to shut down. Negotiations appear to have ground to a stuttering, and painful, halt.
“Access to higher education, particularly for the poor is everyone’s concern and therefore all stakeholders must play an active role in saving our 2016 academic program. Ongoing negotiations cannot stand in the way of classes resuming, dialogue is the only answer, and intimidation and violence will never address the legitimate concerns of students,” says Nzimande.
With negotiations stuttering and the academic year coming to an end, time is running out.
Why Free Education Won’t Favor The Poor
Students want free education, but do any of them know what it means.
Nico Cloete, Director of the Centre for Higher Education Trust at the University of the Western Cape, says students are asking the wrong questions.
“There is no such thing as ‘free higher education’. Universities are very expensive. Rather, the issue is who pays what and when? Secondly, international research shows that ‘there is broad agreement among economists of higher education funding that government subsidies are regressive, meaning subsidies favor the rich’. According to Nicholas Barr from the London School of Economics, public universities often argue that low or no tuition fees provide greater equality of educational opportunity, but that the overwhelming subsidy in public universities accrues to students from middle- and high-income families,” he says.
Cloete is one of the academics who submitted documents to the Fees Commission.
“The question to be addressed by the Fees Commission should have been: What is required for a sustainable higher education system with affordability for those who qualify for access?”
Higher education is seen as a ladder into the affluent middle class. The World Bank reports that South Africa has the highest private return to tertiary education. University graduates are three to five times more likely to find a job than high school graduates.
Cloete argues, of the million students who enter school, about 110,000 will enrol at university and 55,000 will graduate after five years. But, 45% of all undergraduates, and 70% of the poor on student financial aid, never graduate.
“So, the issue is not whether there is enough money for free tertiary education, the issue is to fix the undergraduate university and the college systems, provide vastly expanded education and training opportunities, put in place a modern progressive graduate tax (instead of an outdated loan scheme) and stop raiding the treasury. While the Fees Commission and the media are looking at money, the issue is political and systemic.”
The road will be long and arduous. It will take another three years to successfully transform university structures and integrate reform into the national budget, says Price. UCT and Wits also claim that 90% of its students want academic activity to continue and this majority is being held to ransom by a small group of ‘bullies’.
Meanwhile, the frustrated students who bay for change want it now, without paying another cent.