“Our parents were sold the dream of democracy. We’re here for the refund”.


Students march on Parliament. Photo by Masixole Feni.

For the past week, students at universities across South Africa have protested against proposed fee hikes, and say they will continue shutting down universities until the increases are scrapped. What started out as a campus-based #FeesMustFall protest against rising fees,  has now taken to the streets with a call to mass strike, under the slogan #NationalShutDown. In the poor Cape Town township of Khayelitsha, activists occupied a supermarket under the slogan #ThePriceofBreadMustFall.

Yesterday, students marched from the University of Cape Town to Parliament, demanding to see Minister for Higher Education and general secretary of the Communist Party, Blade Nzimande. Nzimande’s decision to increase university tuition fees by 10-12% sparked the outrage. A speech in parliament by Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene was interrupted when MPs from the populist opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) started chanting “Fees Must Fall” in solidarity with the students. They were ejected from Parliament.

Students in the holding cell of Bellville police station

Students in the holding cell of Bellville police station

Police fired stun grenades as the students tried to force their way into the parliamentary complex. A number of students were arrested. Six were charged with treason, for breaching the National Keypoints Act, which is designed to protect vital infrastructure from terrorist attack. The charges were later dropped.

The Freedom Charter, the anti-apartheid movement’s unifying manifesto, famously declares that “the doors of learning and culture shall be open to all”. But a university education is increasingly out of reach, especially for black students from working class backgrounds.

While race is still hugely important in South Africa, racial apartheid has been replaced with class apartheid, with money used to exclude people. Because the majority black population are also the poorest, for many black students this amounts to the same thing.

It has been encouraging to see the multiracial nature of the protests. While led by black students who are the worst affected, unaffordable education and student debt are issues that deeply affect all. In an inspiring act of solidarity, white students formed human shields around black students – because South Africa’s deep racial conditioning means police are much less likely to fire on white kids

What is significant about the protest is that those taking part are “Born Frees” – young people born after the end of apartheid, and brought up in the Rainbow Nation. They are the new generation, and they are revolting against the corruption and complacency of the ruling ANC and its supporters in the Communist Party.

The #FeesMustFall movement grew out of the #RhodesMustFall activism early this year to decolonise education, and have mostly focused on the historically white, elite universities. A degree from one of these institutions is almost a prerequisite for a decent job in South Africa, and so the protests are also about access to quality jobs for working class, black students. Student protests have been a major feature in other countries too, including England, Canada and Chile. The South African movement is part of the resistance to a global attempt to bring neoliberal market principles to higher education.

South Africa has been simmering for some time now, with large parts of the population losing faith in the organisations associated with the liberation movement, who are seen as corrupt and incompetent. The South African economy has been hurt by global conditions, but also by twenty years of state mismanagement of infrastructure, which have lead to continual power blackouts.

Working class South Africans feel they have gained little from the end of apartheid, and when striking mineworkers were shot dead by police at Marikana in August 2012, it seemed the state had turned against them. This lead to a wave of destructive wildcat action – including a six month strike in the platinum sector, and wine farm workers burning down vineyards – that has hurt the economy and undermined established unions, who are perceived as being too close to the bosses and the state.

So far, this hasn’t translated into electoral politics, with the main opposition coming from the liberal but economically right wing Democratic Alliance, with the left-populist EFF gaining only a handful of MPs. Whether the rage of a very diverse group of South African activists can coalesce into a political project that leads to change is unclear.

Coincidentally, French economist Thomas Piketty visited South Africa early this month, and in front of 2,000 people at the University of Johannesburg, gave a very bleak assessment of transformation in South Africa.

Fees Must fall infographic

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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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