The Politics of the Student Protests in South Africa


zim-ren-3On Wednesday, the 21st of October 2015, it was reported that thousands of protesting students from the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) descended on the South African Parliament ahead of the Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene’s budget policy statement.

The boisterous students forced their way through parliament’s gates and triggered a response from the South African Police Service (SAPS), which fired stun grenades as the protesters tried to force their way onto the parliamentary grounds.

It appears that the countrywide student demonstrations were inspired by protests at the University of Witwatersrand the previous week, where students were “toyi-toying” against a decision by the university’s management to increase fees by 10.5% in the 2016 academic year.

The students were also demanding free education for the poor on the basis that the African National Congress (ANC) government promised free education for the poor when it took power in 1994.

These student protests resulted in the closure of several South African tertiary institutions.

Even today, the situation has not been fully resolved despite the government announcement that fees will not increase in 2016.

As it stands, there are widespread fears that some students will not write their end-of-year exams.


The Politics of the Protests

Firstly, let me say that the protests were noble in principle, and should be commended.


In fact, when the protests began, academics across the world (myself included) watched democracy at work with esteem, even envy perhaps.


However, when I read that the South African government announced that fees would not be increased in 2016, I wondered why the Jacob Zuma administration had given in so easily, and whether their reasons for capitulating were political.


Below are some of my conclusions.


Firstly, the protests were getting out of control.


Police teargas and stun grenades were not deterring the students, and the Zuma administration could not afford another Marikana moment, especially considering that in this instance the students had global sympathy and the moral high-ground in the matter. As a result Jacob Zuma’s government capitulated.


Secondly, the students were becoming increasingly violent and rebellious.


Intelligence sources revealed that students were accusing their own student leaders of taking bribes and “selling out.”


For instance, Social Media attacks of the Wits SRC president Mcebo Dlamini included comments like:


“if you see mcebo please stab him for me,”
“needs a knife to the heart,”

These undertones of violence necessitated a political approach to the protests. The last thing the South African government needed was internationally circulated images of students stabbing and ‘necklacing’ each other.


Finally, the government yielded to student pressure because South Africa has local government elections in 2016. As a result, The Jacob Zuma administration chose not to deal with the students with a heavy hand lest the ANC lost its student support base to parties like the EFF.


In fact, when the protests began, Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters party (EFF) was ready, and perhaps even attempting to politicize the student protests to their own advantage in the same way that they politicized Marikana.


As a result Jacob Zuma’s administration knew they had to tread carefully, and decided to show some empathy for the students’ cause, not because they care about the students, but because it is good politics to pretend like they do.


Ultimately, however, I doubt that the #FeesMustFall campaign will have a lasting effect.


If anything, Universities in South Africa will find clandestine means of increasing fees. For example, they may decide to increase international student levies and quotas.


Furthermore universities are also likely to make their entrance requirements stricter in the hope that their future first year intake consists of the caliber of citizens who are not interested in strikes and protests.


The fact is that in universities across the world today you get what you pay for. Therefore the idealistic objective of “free education for the poor” is unattainable.


There are no free lunches.


In fact, if tertiary education becomes free for poor South Africans at state universities, then consequently, the rich will build private universities and that is where top tier lecturers will teach, and top tier employers will recruit.


In other words, if the “free education for the poor” objective is achieved, then inequality in South Africa will be recycled… again.

Tau Tawengwa

Executive Director


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One thought on “The Politics of the Student Protests in South Africa

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