By Merle Streck
Since mid-October, South Africa has seen the largest student protests since apartheid ended in 1994. Students of seven major universities in the country have been demonstrating against the planned tuition fee increases, resulting in at least 23 arrests. Outrage among the student body began on the 13th of October, after universities proposed an 11.5 per cent increase on fees for 2016.
Ever since then, the hashtag #FeesMustFall has been trending on social media. On the 17th of October, due to several days of continued demonstrations, the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) announced the suspension of the planned 11.5 per cent increase in fees. The protests reached their peak on the 19th of October, when Wits students blocked roads and overturned vehicles off campus in Johannesburg.
Even after the Higher Education Minister, Blade Nzimande, came to a decision with university officials to cap tuition fee increases at 6 per cent for the next academic year, the student protests continued. “They know very well that we can’t afford 6 per cent. We want free, quality education,” said Vuyani Pambo, the chairperson for the Economic Freedom Fighters at Wits.
Commenting on the recent proposal to increase tuition fees, Mr Nzimande said: “Considering the current economic challenges and fiscal constraints facing the country, the department urges all university councils and management to exercise greater caution and sensitivity in the process of determining fee increases in their institutions. It’s imperative that they consult all relevant key stakeholders in order to minimise the detrimental impact on poor students.”
Reports indicate that at least 23 students have been arrested after the entrances at the University of Cape Town were blocked. As a result of this, the police got involved by launching stun grenades into crowds of protesters after the student actions were declared unlawful. Teaching was suspended at both The University of Cape Town and Rhodes University as a result of the protests.
In particular, students have voiced concern over the policy of a minimum initial payment, which comprises 50 per cent of the total annual fee. Furthermore, the students believe that the increase in tuition fees represents yet another mark of discrimination in South Africa, a country where the income inequality between black and white families is particularly prevalent.
The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Francis Petersen, expressed his discontent about the suspension of teaching, saying that this “infringes on the rights of others who wish to continue with their work” as well as describing the students’ behaviour as “unacceptable and illegal.”
After continued unrest, the protests reached both Stellenbosch University and the University of Pretoria. Lauren Hess from Stellenbosch University said: “Many students are in complete shock about the lengths management has gone to in order to not meet with students and about seeing our fellow students being put in chokeholds by police. Many are angry that their legitimate concerns have been dismissed in such a violent manner and this has cemented their resolve to make the university ‘ungovernable’.”
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