Quartz Africa and Reuters
South Africa’s top universities are in disarray as the Fees Must Fall movement for free education reaches boiling point.
Several times over the last weeks riot police faced off against students singing liberation anthems while lecture halls, science labs and lawns reserved for graduation ceremonies have become the sites of running battles, with teargas and stones exchanged in battle.
Classes have been suspended for fear of students’ and lecturers’ safety. The students at the fore of these protests have vowed that no classes will continue until their rallying cry for free schooling becomes reality.
Wits University, highly regarded as one of the top five on the continent, abruptly postponed an urgent general council assembly on Friday as students and management reached deadlock over how to reopen the institution.
“There are two options on the table,” said vice-chancellor Adam Habib. “Firstly, if we do not open in the next couple of days, then we are reaching a point of no return. And if we reach a point of no return, then we will have to make hard choices about closure, including the closure of residences. There is no point of having the university open and our residences open when no studying is taking place. That’s the purpose of this university — to house people that are studying — and at that point we will have to make the appropriate decision.
The university has hardly had any lectures this week, one week away from the start of end of year examinations, and Habib says disturbances in education in South Africa are serious.
“When the university and its council puts its entire energy behind a statement, as significant as this, it’s a dramatic statement to make. We’ve also committed to having a general assembly and we’ve committed to doing a march to the Constitutional Court.
“We’ll postpone the general assembly until consensus is reached. We remain committed to the pledge and the march and should conditions enable this, we’ll be happy to engage.”
The most visible protest have taken place on South Africa’s formerly white-only campuses, led by Wits and the University of Cape Town.
Critics argue these protests are the actions of a privileged few since these once-segregated public schools remain the country’s best universities, and the most expensive.
Most of South Africa’s 27 universities are in a dire condition, according to rights group Equal Education, but protests on these less prestigious campuses do not garner the same public attention.
This year’s protests have been more fraught as the gulf between student leaders, universities and the government become ever wider.
The torching of a library and decades-old texts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal eroded public support but also raised the uncomfortable question on the value placed on libraries versus poor students’ access to those libraries
The torching of a library and decades-old texts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal eroded public support but also raised the uncomfortable question on the value placed on libraries versus poor students’ access to those libraries.
The increased presence of police and private security on campuses has only heightened tension. The student movements have not been without blame, and have been accused of coercion and intimidation, but they have also garnered the support of political heavyweights including Winnie Mandela.
South Africa does not seem to have the political will or the financial resources to implement its ideological values.
To provide free higher education would require financial restructuring that South Africa’s ailing budget cannot handle, according to treasury. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan allocated 28 billion rand (just over $2 billion) for university subsidies and 14.3 billion rand (just over $1 billion) to the national funding scheme for the 2016/2017 financial year.
But a leaked 2012 report outlining a model for free university for the country’s poorest students (those from homes with an income in the lowest tax bracket of 188,000 rand or $13,160) showed that free education is possible in South Africa. The report, commissioned by the higher education ministry, was only released after an activist group filed a freedom of information request, known in South Africa as Promotion of Access to Information Act application.
“Free university education for the poor in South Africa is feasible, but will require significant additional funding of both [the National Student Financial Aid Scheme] NSFAS and the university system,” the report said.
“The question that South Africans need to be asking is: What kind of a society are we trying to create?” the report reads. “And the answer to that question is unequivocal: A society that is socially just.”