South African students demand free education

Africa | Ongoing protests highlight the country’s continued struggle with inequality
by Onize Ohikere
Posted 10/11/16, 10:34 am

South African police yesterday clashed with student protesters demanding free education at the University of Witwatersrand. The school had just reopened for the first time in weeks following similar demonstrations.

Students at several universities across the nation have taken to the streets in recent weeks as part of the “Fees Must Fall” campaign. They argue current education costs perpetuate persisting inequality in the country because a majority of black students remain unable to pay for advanced schooling.

Protesters hurled rocks into buildings and at security guards, who responded by firing tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons to disperse the crowd. Some of the demonstrators later moved into the city and set a bus on fire. Police said they arrested at least 27 students across the country.

In a statement, the university accused students of throwing rocks that could have killed people. Blade Nzimande, South Africa’s education minister, condemned the violence and appealed for dialogue, saying the school’s academic progress was “held to ransom by irresponsible and disrespectful striking students.”

Similar student protests in 2015 prompted the government to freeze tuition rates this year. The latest round of demonstrations began at more than half the country’s colleges after the government announced plans to increase fees by about 8 percent. Protesters at the University of Cape Town burned several buildings. At the University of KwaZulu, protesters burned down the university’s library.

Some of the universities said the fee freeze has strained their finances, and the government has offered to cover next year’s fee increases for poor students. But the protesters still demand a solution to the larger problem of inequality in the country.

“The aftermath of apartheid has not been sufficiently dealt with,” Thalo Mokoena, a 22-year-old member of Wits Student Representative Council, told The Guardian. “You are allowed to go around, but economic marginalization hasn’t changed much and opportunity certainly isn’t equal.”

Jakkie Cilliers, a researcher with the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa, said equal educational opportunities could help the government bridge the inequality gap.

“The irony is, for a long time, providing equal opportunities for the poor has been the best way to shift inequalities,” he said. “What’s happening now is we’re destroying that opportunity for many poor students.”

But South Africa’s economy is struggling amid a drought and fraud allegations against Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. The South African currency fell 3 percent against the dollar following the announcement of Gordhan’s expected court appearance in November, showing that even investors are becoming wary.

Cilliers said the country is financially unable to meet the students’ full demands, calling instead for better mediation between the two parties.

“The state simply does not have the money, and if it succumbs, it will come at a huge cost to other priorities,” Cilliers said. “In an ideal world, the answer would be ‘let’s sit down and talk and find a middle way.’”

Onize Ohikere

Onize is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Abuja, Nigeria.

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