Home Money Featured Blog: Learning about South African student protests in #FeesMustFall

Featured Blog: Learning about South African student protests in #FeesMustFall

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Is a major, ground-shaking movement of students calling for substantive change in costs to college education on its way to the United States? It’s hard to say. Meanwhile, South African students have taken matters on fees and the cost of “higher education” into their own hands.

So what were the messages and goals for South African students? #FeesMustFall. And similarly? #FreeEducationForAll.

However, these two concepts don’t touch all the bases. Students were protesting more than just tuition hikes. That’s just a starting point for the sake of organization. In an opinion piece for The Mail & Guardian, Katlego Disemelo, who is a PhD student and teaching assistant at the University of Witwatersrand explained how it went much deeper for many of the students.

“It is, firstly, about access to equal and quality education. It is about teasing out the ever-so-confusing intricacies of class relations in post-apartheid South Africa. It is about eradicating the painful exclusions and daily micro aggressions which go hand-in-hand with institutional racism within these spaces,” Disemelo said. “And it is also about laying bare the failures of the heterosexual, patriarchal, neoliberal capitalist values which have become so characteristic of the country’s universities.”

Mass protests across the country that were primarily made up of college students took place from around the second week of October until South African President Jacob Zuma announced on Oct. 23 that there would be no college fee increases in 2016. The plan was originally for a tuition hike of 11.5 percent for 2016.

Institutional transformation, access to education (which is still a barrier for many black students in South Africa) and more were highlighted in protests. They happened across the country; in one such instance, protesters stormed the parliamentary grounds, trapping lawmakers in Cape Town. Violence ensued outside of Parliament and in the aftermath of protests that occurred at the Union Buildings outside of the main government offices in Pretoria.

“Zuma’s non-appearance infuriated protesters. A small minority tore up security fences, burned portable toilets and threw rocks at police,” The Guardian’s Simon Allison explained. “The police responded forcefully, using teargas, rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse the crowd. Running battles between small groups of protesters and police continued after sunset, damaging several vehicles.”

The battle has been won by students. At least from an outsider’s perspective, it seems that way. Whether students can achieve broader goals encapsulated in institutional transformation while attacking broader issues rooted in postcolonial, post-apartheid South Africa is a question yet to be answered, but it is highly encouraging that students were able to achieve what they did. Though this battle is won, there is a broader war in the minds of these students that is just beginning to be tackled.

Looking westward, Canada had its own high-profile student protests just a few years ago.

Protests occurred in Canada this spring, bringing reminders of the “Maple Spring,” which started in March 2012. It’s easy to remember the red squares worn by protesters and those standing in solidarity. Hundreds of thousands of students flooded the streets over several months with the focus of tuition fee hikes. The result wasn’t vastly measureable and there was no substantive tuition freeze or decrease, but it did result in a massive shake-up in the administration of higher education, with several high-profile officials resigning. It also showed political power and demonstrated how students are a group to fear in the political establishment.

Look back at U.S. education, where access to higher education is notably more restricted to the most affluent, as evidenced in a task force report from the “Middle Class Task Force to the Vice President of the United States”. Studies like this demonstrably show that those from higher-income families go to college overwhelmingly more often than those in middle-class families, and middle class more so than lower class, as most could guess. According to this study, around 50 percent of young people from families among the lowest 20 percent in earners sent their children to enroll in college. And this doesn’t mean they graduated.

Further, this is what the national student debt is in the United States. That number alone (over $1.3 TRILLION) could be enough to spark massive unrest that could culminate in broad scale protests on college campuses and in various urban centers across the U.S.

Does this issue of student debt and inaccessibility to higher education for low-wage earners prompt mass protests that also further encompass other institutional problems into their rallying cries for change? Only time will tell. It sure seems that with the current debt incurred by students, a wave of momentum for mass protests could be just a pinfall away. To see it happen would be encouraging, and there should be no qualms in saying so. It’s a big enough issue to find itself prominently in the platforms of the Democratic candidates for president.

No one should be content with entire generations either being incapable of accessing an education that society has deemed necessary or with the massive issue of foundation crumbling student debt. Take a note from the books of South African students. Though their aims and complaints are broader and highly different, there is much to learn from their outrage, cries and solidarity.


Here are three pieces of media about #FeesMustFall, student debt, protests and more.

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  1. […] South African student movements Oct. 30 […]


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