Deciphering the South African Higher Education Protests of 2015-16

Students march through the University of Cape Town before a protest at Parliament, October 2015. Photo by Masixole Feni. Courtesy of GroundUp.

One of the most profound and moving placards displayed during the student protests had to be “Our parents were sold dreams in 1994. We are just here for the Refund!!” As these students and their allies made clear, higher education holds the promise of contributing to social justice, economic and social development, and democratic citizenship. Yet, this promise often remains unrealized, and higher education instead becomes a powerful mechanism of social exclusion and injustice.  For education to contribute effectively to social justice in South Africa, there have to be bold and purposeful social justice-oriented policies and initiatives within universities, and also in other arenas of society.

The African National Congress government’s post-1994 economic policies have not fundamentally addressed inequality, even if there have been pro-poor social policies geared towards addressing some dimensions of poverty. A democratic state committed to “a better life for all” and that extends and deepens popular participation in the economic, political, and social domains has failed to materialize. Thus, South Africa faces significant challenges that, in the words of former Reserve Bank Governor Gill Marcus, “require a co-ordinated and coherent range of policy responses.” 

From Past to Present

What happens when you assemble among the most talented of your society within universities? One answer is provided by the case of the newly created universities for Black South Africans in the 1960s. With the repression of the period following the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, when the apartheid state outlawed the key liberation movements, it was difficult to see how any serious political challenge to white minority rule could be mounted, and from where it could come. Most anti-apartheid organizations faced the prospect of immediate repression and the unenviable task of breaking through the extensive social controls, demoralization, fear, and enforced acquiescence that were major impediments to mobilization and organization building. Yet, the South African Students’ Organization, formed in 1968 and associated with Steve Biko, was able to escape immediate repression, establish itself, and develop a mass following at the black universities.

It was at first surprising that this challenge originated where it did; the black universities were not designed to produce dissidents, but were charged with winning students’ approval of, or at least acquiescence to, the separate development program of apartheid, and generating the administrative corps for the separate development bureaucracies. Conversely, the revival of mass political opposition to apartheid from within black universities is also understandable. These institutions gathered students who survived the rigors and hurdles of black schooling but who, upon graduating from higher education, would still be condemned to a future of limited socioeconomic opportunities, indignity, and inequality.

Fast Forward to 2015-16

What happens when you congregate society’s brightest young minds within universities that are characterized by a tardy pace and degree of transformation and various shortcomings, including inadequate funding to undertake effectively their responsibilities? What happens when you, then, also subject considerable numbers of these students to varying degrees of precarious existence because of inadequate financial aid?

Martin Hall, chair of the education and technology nonprofit Jisc and professor emeritus at the University of Cape Town, observes that for many “students, and their families, debt is raw, visceral and lived out through compromises; minimal living standards, not enough to eat, no chance of buying books. Universities are a promise of opportunity and the inspiration for dreams; debt crushes both.” As #FeesMustFallCPUT put it, “We, your children at CPUT [Cape Peninsula University of Technology], are frustrated, vulnerable, emotional and injured – please intervene.” Students on financial aid are known to remit part of their funds to support families, so that that scholarships and bursaries take on a social welfare function. 

Adding to the prospect of massive debt burdens are: high drop-out rates, poor throughput rates, inadequate facilities and accommodation, largely unreconstructed epistemologies and ontologies, questionable quality of learning and teaching to ensure meaningful opportunities and success, and alienating and disempowering academic and institutional cultures that are products of colonialism, racism, and patriarchy. At historically white universities, those who are white and from privileged backgrounds experience higher education and campus culture as inherently natural, feeling very much at home, and students generally blossom. These social groups are largely oblivious to the association of the current cultures with power, privilege, and advantage, and how they especially disadvantage black students from working class backgrounds and women students (and academics) in myriad ways. Those who are black and come from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to find the culture of historically white universities discomforting, alienating, disempowering, and exclusionary.

The Realities of the “Rainbow Nation”

To imagine that South Africa is a “rainbow nation” is to seriously confuse aspirations with realities.

“Rhodes Must Fall,” “Rhodes So White,” and the demand for changing the name of Rhodes University are metaphors for much deeper systemic issues. They are a reminder that there is much unfinished business in South Africa, and that there will be no reconciliation or peace without social justice at universities and in the economy and society more widely. One higher education specialist described the 2015-16 offensive mounted by black students (and supported by some white students, black and white academics, and support staff) as “the largest and most effective student campaign in post-1994 South Africa.”

Though triggered in early 2015 at the University of Cape Town by disenchantment with the continuing presence of the campus statue depicting Cecil John Rhodes, “Rhodes must fall” was, ultimately, a metaphor for dissatisfaction with a much wider set of issues. Students expressed these frustrations through demands related to the “decolonization of the university,” the dearth of black South African scholars, and institutional culture. By late 2015 and early 2016, the issues raised at UCT, Rhodes, and Stellenbosch were overtaken by the demands of students at the University of Witwatersrand and elsewhere related to proposed tuition fee increases, student debt, financial aid, and the idea of “free higher education.” The immediate trigger was the announcement by Wits of a 10.5 percent fee increase for 2016, which evoked the response “#Fees must fall.”

A Short-sighted Victory?

Without doubt, the achievement of no tuition fee increase in 2016 was a major victory for the student protest movement, and the sheer rapidity of the victory was astounding. According to Universities South Africa chairperson Adam Habib, “University leaders did not initially support the zero percent fee increase.” He adds, however, “What the students did in seven days was what we’ve been trying to do for 10 years, which was get the state to rethink its subsidy.”

Was this an audacious gamble on the part of university leaders, especially if the state does not make up the shortfall fully for 2016, and does not significantly “rethink the subsidy”?

There is already talk among student leaders that the zero percent fee increase will also become a demand for 2017 and future years. The issue of “free higher education” came to the fore in late 2015 and early 2016. A Wits Students Representative Council statement expressed a commitment to “free education in our lifetime.”

A policy of free higher education requires fundamental re-thinking of and changes in economic and social goals, priorities, and policy. Whether the protests will be a catalyst of far-reaching transformation in and beyond universities and higher education remains to be seen.