People around Braamfontein know Father Graham Pugin and his generosity. When he protected Wits University students running away from police in the Holy Trinity Catholic Church, it was his way of supporting the community he cares for so dearly. When police came to the church and tried to force their way in, he stood in front of the church entrance, his hands in the air as a sign that he was unarmed. He was shot in the mouth by a rubber bullet, blood dripping down his white robe. Students rushed from the church to help the man who’d helped them. Soon after images of the incident started to circulate on social media.
This altercation with the police is the latest of a long and increasingly violent week of clashes between police and student protesters across South Africa. It’s 2016, and a protest movement over the cost of higher education, known as #FeesMustFall protests have started again.
South Africa’s history of education and higher learning is a checkered one.
The 1953 Bantu Education Act, which mandated that black South African schools turn themselves over to the State and removed power from churches and missionaries, was the first of many disastrous policies that would entrench rampant inequality. Classrooms swelled, with ratio of teacher to student jumping from 46:1 to 58:1. The Indian and Colored populations also suffered at the hands of the Bantu Education system, which was designed by the apartheid government to make non-white populations subservient, and relegate them to menial jobs. When Afrikaans was made one of the languages of instruction in 1975, the decision immediately triggered the 1976 Soweto Uprising. Fed up with an education system that relegated them to a life of poverty and inequality, students in Soweto protested against the Bantu education system, and the oppressive apartheid regime.
Forty years later, South African students have taken to the streets to protest again. Like the students in 1976, they’re fighting against an oppressive and unjust system. They also have to live with the burden of inequality: out of a population of 51.8 million people, new statistics show that only 10% of the population owns the 90-95% of all the assets in South Africa. That means that the majority of South Africans only own a sliver. To break out of the cycle of poverty, many look to formal education for their salvation. However, with an increase of tuition fees for universities across South Africa, that avenue of escape has gotten slimmer and slimmer, with fewer South African students being able to afford to get an education.
The 2015 #FeesMustFall protests succeeded in achieving a 0% increase in tuition fees, but the problem of access to institutions of higher learning persisted. When Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande announced that universities were able to increase fees by 8%, students nationwide were stunned. Although Nzimande did make provisions for students on official government subsidies, his announcement still did not accommodate people who could not afford tuition fees. Furthermore, the fee increase would be an added burden to families who were already struggling to pay tuition.
And so, as they had done the year before, students took the streets. However, their endgoal was different this time. This year, fees would simply not just increase. This year, fees would fall completely, and a system of free and quality education would be implemented. One by one university campuses across the country shut down, from Johannesburg’s University of the Witswatersrand, to the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein. Although demands on an institutional level differed from university to university, the national demand was the same for all the protesters: free education, and free education now.
The response from police officials, and university managements has not been pleasant.
Violent scenes of arrests, clashes with armed police, and marches poured onto social media. Once again, students took to Twitter and Facebook to drive the momentum of the protests, but this time, they exercised more agency and control over how they were represented in the media. Not happy with being painted as hooligans or disruptive elements looking for a free ride through university, protesters took reportage into their own hands. #FeesMustFall2016 has seen a strong surge of citizen journalism, with students often being able to capture events when established media houses could not. Parents, lecturers, government officials and international media have all weighed in on the protests, and their call for free education.
The concept of free higher education is nothing new. Having been established in Norway, Sweden and Germany, there are real-life examples of countries that have been able to successfully create, implement, and maintain a system of free tertiary education for its citizens. UNESCO’s Education for All movement aims to provide “quality basic education for all children, youth and adults.” This commitment is an important one, one that echoes the goals driving the #FeesMustFall. In attempting to correct historical inequalities and injustices, access to education is key. High tuition automatically excludes the poor, making education a privilege and luxury, not a human right.
As the #FeesMustFall protests of 2016 have shown, the question of access to education is an issue that encompasses economical, political and historical debates on how education is integral in creating an equal society.