SEATTLE — The South African Higher Education National Convention held in Midrand, South Africa on Saturday, March 11 was abruptly canceled amid an uproar of violent student protest. The convention was intended to be a platform for the government, students and other civilians to come together and address the ongoing crisis of higher education in South Africa. For years there has been a lack of general consensus between the government and students over terms of monetary provision and relief for tertiary education in South Africa.
While all student representatives were approached prior to the start of the convention, the event proved to be the culmination of several months of unrest. Tensions between student leaders and what they felt to be disengaged and unproductive government and staff leaders resulted in increasingly aggressive action on behalf of struggling students.
Over the course of the 2016 academic year, mass student protests led several educational institutions to close down indefinitely. The government eventually managed to allocate additional funds but simultaneously announced a plan to increase fees in 2017. The government argued that the zero percent increase implemented in 2016 was unsustainable, while students continued to argue that prices were already unaffordable for a huge segment of the South African population.
The students’ fight for free higher education in South Africa has, in many instances, turned into violent riots, resulting in student arrests and a growing communication gap between students and the government.
The crisis in higher education reached its peak when disruption began on March 11 with one student calling for all white people to leave the Higher Education National Convention. Then, students restricted members of AfriForum — a South African civil rights organization — from speaking before the event was evacuated. The final decision was made when students proceeded to direct violent threats at the Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, as he prepared to address the crowd. As observers fled the scene, students continued to heave chairs and water bottles across the room, aiming only at each other.
Following the events of March 11, University of Pretoria AfriForum campus coordinator Jaco Grobbelaar came forward saying, “There is no way we will solve the situation if we are not allowed to speak.” Grobbelaar went on to add “It is getting violent and I am not willing to risk my life to find a solution.”
A number of other individuals have also come forward assuring that the crisis of higher education in South Africa will never be solved if the two sides cannot engage in peaceful and meaningful discourse.
– Jaime Viens