Thursday, October 22, 2015

Student Protests

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.
Blocking roads
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.


  1. Interesting. Here university education is free and the universities rely on a certain % of overseas students paying through the nose to help fund it all. The problem then arises when a Scottish student ( with tax paying parents), meeting all the criteria for entry, is refused a place because the quota of domestic places has been filled and the rest of the places are reserved for 'foreign' (inc English!) students.

  2. In general, I'm with the students.

  3. I grew up in a time when university education was the exception, not the norm. When I first heard the idea of free college educations, I was surprised by the idea, and a little baffled. However, today, everyone pretty much NEEDS a college education to function successfully in society (there are fewer and fewer manual labor jobs). SOCIETY benefits from the population all being better educated, so just as school is 'free' through high school, I think it does make sense for governments to cover the cost of educating people for four years of college. Those who want to go beyond that, then yes, they should pay their own way. Of course, this brings up the whole issue of student loans. My impression is that FAR too many people today borrow EVERYTHING for not only classes, but room, food, entertainment, etc, all the way through college, and then are dismayed at the huge loans they're left to pay off. What happened to "working your way" through college?

    Yeah, yeah, I'm an old fart. :-)

  4. I'm getting forgetful, Michael. I read your post first thing this morning, then had lunch with Stanley where we discussed it, and when I read EvKa's comment--without a jab at me--I realized I never posted my comment. I'm pretty sure that I agreed with your final line, but after listening to as much of the Benghazi Committee's interrogation of Hillary Clinton as I did, my mind is fudge. Maple walnut.

    1. In other words, Jeff, what you're saying is that with you, it's situation normal, same old same old?

  5. Avoid the Benghazi hearings like the plague, guaranteed to make one's mind muddy.

    I'm with the students, too. When I went to college at my city's university, tuition was free. Now it isn't. But when the school started imposing tuition, there were massive protests. It really cut out a lot of people from going to college.

    A major problem in South Africa is that while apartheid was legally ended, economic equality has never been achieved. Much wealth is concentrated among a few and there are vast numbers of African people who are living in poverty.

    There should be free education for all and economic equality should be a major goal of the society. As long as there are haves and have-nots, and the majority are poor, there will be tension and protests.

    1. I agree with most of what you say, Kathy, but I think I'd phrase it as "economic fairness" rather than "economic equality." The latter implies, or at least raises the vision in one's mind, of everyone having the same amount of economic resources, money, land, home, etc. That's impossible to achieve, and attempting it would remove the drive to "work hard at building a better life for one's self," which is a major way that society, as a whole, moves forward.

      However, I will agree that our societies are FAR too imbalanced, and that there should be far more free education through basic college, increased taxes on the wealthy, and increasingly steep taxes on estates. Passing large real estate holdings and 100's of millions if not billions of dollars on to your heirs is ludicrous. Minimum wage, today in the U.S. should be AT LEAST $20/hour. Reason and fairness should be the rule of the land.

  6. President Zuma has announced no fee increase for next year. So the students have won the first round. But the real aim is free university education, and that has a way to go...

  7. Yes, the students won! And President Zuma has said no tuition increases in the coming year. And, as agreed with point above, the goal should be free university education.

    And I do mean economic equity and much more sharing of the wealth, which is still mostly held by a few. The poverty rate is astronomical as is the unemployment rate. Many people still live in shacks while the privileged live in mansions or in opulent gated communities.

    And, as i just read about the mining industry's crises, 35,000 miners were laid off between 2012 and 2014. Where will they get jobs?

    The wealth has to be much more evenly distributed, jobs created, housing built and education free.
    Economic apartheid, as some term it, should end.

  8. Thanks for all the input everyone. For those interested, here is the full statement from the Wits Vice Chancellor. It sounds very promising:


    "The Vice-Chancellors and Chairs of Council represented through Universities South Africa today presented the following proposals to the joint meeting hosted by the Presidency at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

    1. All parties should collectively commit to a zero percent (0%) increase for 2016, with government stepping in to make up the difference.

    2. Universities will independently commit to deliberate on their expenditure and make immediate efficiency gains.

    3. The Presidential Task Team that was established will deliberate and attend to the plight of students in debt and increase funding for financial aid.

    4. The immediate establishment of a commission to look at the restructuring of the entire system, including fee increases, subsidy and cost drivers and historical inequality, including infrastructure renewal.

    5. The medium-term goal is to ensure that all students in need have free access to a quality higher education.

    6. The establishment of a separate commission to address the challenge of outsourcing to allow universities to reaffirm our broad commitment to ethical standards.

    7. In return, students are to resume all academic activities immediately and complete their examinations. Each university will determine an examination extension that is appropriate to its circumstances.

    8. All parties are to commit to peaceful interaction, non-violence and to refrain from engagement in the politics of humiliation.
    The meeting lasted several hours and after intense debate and deliberation between all stakeholders, President Zuma, in a televised address to the nation, made the following announcement:

    1. There would be a zero percent (0%) increase in fees for 2016.
    2. University Vice-Chancellors will extend the time for the examinations period to compensate for time lost.
    3. Long-term issues to be addressed include free education, institutional autonomy, racism, and what students call “black debt”.
    4. The Presidential Task Team that has been established to address funding mechanisms will be broadened to look at all these and broader transformation issues affecting higher education.
    5. There will be an attempt by government to ensure that all students arrested will not be charged.
    We will keep you updated on the next steps."

  9. Looks good. Hopefully, the charges will be dropped for the arrested students. And, hopefully, the issue of inequality in tuition fees will be worked out so that everyone can go to the universities for free.