South African students resume their fight – and face repression

photo credit: Tony Carr

The last few months have seen protests erupt in universities across South Africa. Ashley Fataar, from the South African organisation Keep Left, reports.

In September students at universities across South Africa began demonstrating for the complete removal of university fees for poor students. The protests erupted when the minister responsible for higher education announced that it would be left to individual universities to determine fee increases for 2017. Students were hoping for at least no increases. Had that been the case, then the protests might not have erupted. But the government allowed administrations to raise fees at a time when many students already cannot afford to go to university.

The students responded by organising mass meetings on campuses involving a series of sit-ins and meetings. Lectures were disrupted. Barricades were erected at some campuses.

The response from university managements and police has been vicious. They are determined that there will be no re-run of last year’s campaign, which caught them flat-footed. Faced with the re-emergence of campus protests, university managers called in private security companies and the police to disrupt student meetings.

One of the private security corporations is Vetus Schola. It employs former special operations soldiers of the apartheid military. They identified and hunted anti-apartheid activists and murdered them in the 1980s. Vetus Schola security thugs unleashed a reign of terror in a mining community during a workers’ strike some years ago. Now they have been sent onto campuses to brutalise students.

The police have used tear-gas, rubber bullets and water cannons. They wear body armour and wave loaded guns at protesters. Police fired a rubber bullet point blank into the face of a priest who was sheltering students inside his church in the neighbourhood of Wits University in central Johannesburg.

Soldiers have also been deployed to the University of the Free State to “assist” police. They use automatic rifles. The mainstream media have not reported on this.

The battle of Braamfontein

On 10 October, students at Wits University tried to use the university for a meeting. Police armoured cars and a water cannon charged at them. Heavily armed officers threw stun grenades into the crowd and opened fire with rubber bullets. Tear gas was also fired into university lecture rooms to clear buildings.

The students responded by taking their protest outside the campus and into the surrounding area of Braamfontein. Bystanders shocked at the police response sympathised with the students and joined in the protests.

More repression was unleashed. Wits administrators imposed a 10pm curfew on the halls of residence and sent police and security forces into the buildings, in which they terrorised students.

Witnesses reported students suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, uncontrollable crying and nightmares from the experiences. Students arrested on or off campus are being denied bail. Some have been locked up for three weeks.


Most have been charged with arson. But, chillingly, one student in Cape Town has been charged with attempted murder. Three security guards were locked in a security office, which was set alight. Yet the security company says no students were involved. The student was also nowhere near the campus. A second student at another university in Cape Town has been denied bail and is currently locked up in a maximum security prison.

South Africa’s rulers have responded to the demand for free education by responding the only way that a ruling class can respond in an economic crisis – repression. The effective state of emergency on the universities is not an accident but part of the desperate measures that capitalism uses to maintain its hegemony.

The state commission of enquiry is a smoke screen

President Jacob Zuma has announced a commission of enquiry into the issue of free education. It is due to report by next July. But it’s clear the main item on the agenda is the further securitisation of the campuses: members of the commission include the government ministers responsible for the prisons, police, army and intelligence services. The minister of finance, the one with the capacity to actually increase university funding, is not a member.

We don’t need to wait for the commission’s findings: the police action in Braamfontein and the trumped-up charges against students show how the government is already responding. And the message from the university administrations, police and government is chillingly clear: their violence is going to escalate.

In order to counter this, students organised a week of action starting on 17 October which culminated in a march of 4000 students, workers and supporters to parliament on 26th Oct 2016. Trade unions and other groups of organised workers have passed motions of support for the students and are discussing how they might assist.

The Way Forward

The student movement faces three issues.

The call for Decolonisation means simply getting rid of the current ruling class and replacing it with a 100% local ruling class. One of the proponents is the Black First Land First (BLF) party. It has forgiven President Jacob Zuma for the Nkandla corruption scandal – and also likely Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa over the Marikana massacre in which 34 striking workers were murdered. The argument for decolonisation arises in the ideology of Pan-Africanism and Black Consciousness which emphasises skin-colour above class.

The second main issue facing the student movement is one of a lack of organisational unity. The movement is also deeply divided along political factions. These are deliberately stirred up by political parties, in particular the ANC, in order to weaken the movement.

The third issue is one of real workers solidarity. Despite the months of struggle, the broader masses have not come out in active support. It is due to the leadership of the trade unions, including Numsa, that have not called out their members in direct support of the demands for free education.

In order for the fight for free education to be carried forward, the organised section of the working class has to intervene. Already union shopstewards and locals in two provinces have called on their national leaders to begin to organise for a national strike. But much more pressure will be required.

In the process the question of ideology and organisational unity will be the paramount questions for the movement. Small organisations of socialists have made interventions and continue to do so. As a result groups of students who agree with socialism are beginning to emerge on a couple of the campuses.

This will provide a platform to regain and broaden support for the deepening of the struggle in the future.

What you can do:

  1. Solidarity statements can be sent to: Ferron Pedro of the Workers and Community Solidarity Forum at and the Left Students Forum at
  2. Donations can be sent to PayPal with the email address:

3. Wire transfers can be made to: Workers Solidarity Fund Task Team, Branch code: 051001, Account Number: 073-576-093 (Cheque Account). Swift Code: SBZA ZA JJ. Address: Standard Bank, Main Road, Rondebosch 7700, Cape Town, South Africa.


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