A young man being dragged across the road by two armed policemen. The screams and pleas of “Don’t shoot us!” went unheeded; the South African Police Service (SAPS) officers opened fire, shooting students with rubber coated bullets. Those that could run away did, but some weren’t fast enough to escape the police. Dragged over walls and across gravel, eleven students were thrown into police vans. Three students had to be taken to hospital for treatment after being shot. And on Wednesday 28 September 2016, students at Rhodes University were faced with the reality that their fight for free education had put them in direct conflict with authorities.
The protests on Rhodes University campus are part of a larger, nationwide movement known as #FeesMustFall. The protests have engulfed both historically white institutions such as the University of the Witswatersrand, and universities that often go unnoticed on the media radar, such as Walter Sisulu University. #FeesMustFall sprang up in late October 2015. A sharp increase in tuition pushed students to shut down campuses and protest against the fee hike. Then as now, their cause was justified.
Although access to higher education had increased in the past decade, the corresponding increase in tuition meant that poor and middle-class South Africans found it harder to afford to go school. So in 2015, when universities announced their proposed increase, it lit a touchpaper. I remember getting my fee estimate and feeling the weight of knowing how much my parents would have to sacrifice for me to get a degree. I felt it in every step as I walked out of the Fees office, that piece of paper bearing the six-digit figure fluttering against the summer air. There was only one thought running through my mind as I shoved it into my bag. How were my parents going to afford it?
It’s a question that students across South Africa’s tertiary education institutions asked themselves. A university qualification is essential to escape the cycle of poverty and inequality, and the economic inequalities in the country run deep. 10% of the population own 90% of assets in South Africa, relegating the majority to a measly sliver of wealth. And now, with another increase in tuition fees when already steep, students would be trapped in that inequality. It was time to take power back into their hands, and take to the streets.
Take to the streets they did, and after weeks of protests, President Jacob Zuma announced that fees for 2016 would not increase, effectively establishing a moratorium on tuition increase. After weeks of marching, being mocked and ridiculed, it was a glorious moment to know that our efforts had not been in vain. The dreaded fee increase would not be a reality for 2016. We could breathe again.
We were wrong.
When Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande announced a potential fee increase of up to 8% in September this year, it triggered an immediate negative reaction. The average tuition fee at Rhodes University was R40 000, excluding residence. An 8% increase would move that figure up to R43 200. This sounds like a manageable increase, but when taking into consideration that the average monthly income of a South African household is R12 715, that 8% isn’t so manageable after all. And with two-thirds of South African households living on R6 000 or less per month, an increase of any kind is a nightmare. In addition to tuition, there are other things to consider: accommodation, textbooks, stationary, food and pocket money. Campuses nationwide shut down, academic activities came to a standstill. It was time to take the power back once again.
Except this time, the fight is not against an increase in fees. The fight is now for the government to implement a system of free education. This demand isn’t unusual: Germany, Norway and Cuba currently enjoy a system of free education, and for a country that is still to address and correct the horrific injustices of the past (during apartheid the education system was used to subjugate black South Africans), free higher education is an important step in the right direction.
Almost immediately, student protesters faced resistance from all corners. The Government was uninterested in their plight. Negotiations with university officials have broken down over and over again. Even their peers, their fellow students, cheered and clapped as they were arrested. But that was nothing compared to the reaction from SAPS.
The scene on Rhodes University campus played out in other universities. Police firing teargas and stun grenades at unarmed students. Firing at them with rubber bullets. Dragging protesters against the floor, impervious to the screams and cries. The police have been dogged in their determination to fight fire with fire, and with each passing week of protests, clashes between them and students have gotten more and violent, more and more traumatic, and it’s becoming harder for the government to look the other way.
This week, the situation at Wits University turned from dangerous to deadly, when police shot Father Graham Pugin as he protected students who had run to find shelter in his church. The images of a dazed Father Pugin being rushed away by students, blood dripping from his mouth onto his white robe, signaled a turning point in the protests.
Because despite the increase in violence and physical danger, students are not giving up. This is more than just a fight for free education, this is a fight for their future, and the future of South Africa’s poor and black middle class. “A Luta Continua” (the struggle continues), Samora Machel once said; the same can be said for student protesters as they continue to put their bodies on the line every day for the dream of a free and equal education system.
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Mako Muzenda is a Journalism and French student at the University Currently Known as Rhodes. When she isn’t blogging or chasing assignment deadlines, she’s engaging in her passion for science fiction and learning more about Africa’s many cultures and languages. You can read her musings on Twitter @NzouSuwani.
This piece was commissioned by Samira Sawlani