Michael - Thursday
|Wits students protesting the fee hikes this week|
This week has seen an eruption of student unrest in South Africa that has led to student injuries, tear gassings and arrests. Roads were blocked and cars overturned. Staff have been threatened. Students have clashed with police leading to tear gassings, student injuries, and arrests.
This was quite normal in the late eighties and early nineties when the student protests were directed at the apartheid government and usually had the implicit support of academics. Often they led to violent responses by the police. At least at Wits University no one was shot, although many students were injured in various ways.
|Protest at Wits|
With the change of government, there was a period of calm. But structural problems remain and they are no longer just black and white. Now the issue is more focused on the haves and the have-nots. The struggle now is more a class struggle and it is no longer directed at the government; now it is directed at the universities themselves. Wits University has been closed for the whole of this week.
The first rumblings of what the students described as a plan to decolonize the universities arose over monuments that seemed unconnected with South Africa’s apartheid past. They are, but they are not unconnected with South Africa’s colonial past that was just as unsavory. The United Party governments that preceded the hated National Party government were pretty well as racist as their successors, they just didn’t institutionalize it in the same way. Young people in South Africa are now looking at both the present and the past. They point to the disproportionate number of white academics and the universities’ elitist approach. They are highly dissatisfied with the performance of the current government in terms of jobs, service delivery, restitution of land, and uplifting the poor. They are not wrong. These are hard problems and take time, but seeing government ministers and many others – black and white – enjoying super-luxurious living doesn’t sit well.
|Demand to move the Rhodes statue|
Looking back to colonial times they demanded to know why a statue of Cecil John Rhodes graced the University of Cape Town. Yes, he gave the university land and money, but, they ask, who did he steal those from in the first place? That’s a fair question.
|Not only students had turds for Rhodes!|
|And fall it did...|
After much soul searching and gnashing of teeth, the statue has been moved elsewhere. Many English speaking South Africans are scandalized. Many white Afrikaans speaking South Africans are no doubt delighted at the demise of the British imperialist, while they shake their heads at the antics of the students that included flinging dog turds at the statue.
The flashpoint this week was the decision by universities around the country to increase tuition fees next year by over 11%. Inflation is supposed to be around half that, but that doesn’t really describe the increase in university expenses in a meaningful way. Many research costs are based in foreign currency (equipment, books, conferences) and the rand has weakened 20% over the year.
At a rushed meeting at the end of last week it was decided by the universities in consultation with the minister that the fee increases will be capped at 6%. As far as I can discover, no one has explained how the extra 5% is going to be made up. (I did receive a memo today indicating that tea and coffee would no longer be supplied in the common room; that should go quite a way to help!)
The students were not impressed. Their response was that they could not afford any increase, in fact they demanded that tertiary education should be free. The demonstrations moved to parliament house where the finance minister was giving a downbeat assessment of the economy and the budget for next year. Twenty-three students were arrested.
|Protest in Cape Town|
The students believe that their predecessors brought down the apartheid government by these tactics. The ANC government and the universities better not treat this lightly.