South Africa: an “amazing country-wide revolt” is fighting student fee increases

Not enough has changed since the end of apartheid, say South African students, as fee increases threaten to stop many black students from going to university.

Student protest, University of Cape Town
Student protest, Thursday, at University of Cape Town

Protests continue across South African universities against plans to raise tuition fees by up to 11 percent. The protests began last week in Johannesburg, and have spread around the country. On Wednesday police fired tear gas and stun grenades at students who were attempting to stage a sit-in on the steps of the National Assembly in Cape Town. Thousands of students protested on Thursday outside the headquarters of the ANC, the ruling African National Congress, in Johannesburg, and security guards pepper-sprayed students at Johannesburg University.

2The ANC led the struggle against the racist apartheid system. Headed by Nelson Mandela, they won the elections which introduced democracy to South Africa in 1994 and have headed the government since. But they have followed neoliberal policies, and many black South Africans still live without basic amenities, such as clean water. In one township in Cape Town, for example, campaigners recently found that 1000 inhabitants had only twelve chemical toilets to use between them. The ANC government’s failure to improve the living standards of ordinary people has caused tensions between the party and their most important supporters in the trade unions. The metal workers’ union Numsa, for example, has broken with the ANC, and is taking steps to create a new socialist party. Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) is another such group – a revolutionary socialist political party, started by the former ANC Youth League president and his allies after he was expelled.

Student protest at Cape Town UniversityThe rise in tuition fees is causing particular anger because it threatens to make it impossible for black students, already under-represented, to go to university. Earlier this year, black students in Cape Town, angry at how little has changed in higher education since the end of apartheid, ran a successful “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes from their campus. Rhodes was one of the most important colonialists in southern Africa in the nineteenth century, where he established a monopoly on diamond mining, and introduced policies which forced African people to leave their land and to work for colonial enterprises.

Leo Zeilig comments from South Africa: “An amazing country wide revolt is happening against the fees increase. Students have been radicalising since the Rhodes Must Fall movement. Combined with the deep crisis for the state and the ANC this represents a significant step forward. There is lots at stake. Students are politicising quickly, and it is very significant that in Cape Town the demo was a mix of black and white people.”

The South African president, Jacob Zuma, is due to meet student leaders and university authorities on Friday.

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