JOHANNESBURG — In October, a week before exams, South African students gathered in masses outside the universities of Cape Town and Witwatersrand to protest the government’s plan to raise education fees by 10.5 percent in 2016. If the plan went through, many of these students would be priced out of their education. Others would see their scholarships dry up, forcing them to apply for loans.
These student protests echoed those of their parents in 1976 when students rallied against inefficient education and voting discrimination. Back then, the government promised to make education more accessible for all.
Many feel the government hasn’t delivered on its promise. Today, a third of South Africans between the ages of 15 and 24 are not enrolled in school or gainfully employed.
“Extending access to higher education is not some socialist dream; it’s a vital part of stabilizing the country,” wrote Nicky Falkof, head of Media Studies Department at Witwatersrand University, in a New York Times Opinion Pages article.
It is not just the rise in fees that have South African students upset, it is also the cost of education in general that has gained a lot of opposition in a country where a university degree is the difference between poverty and success. Many students want a free education system.
Protests were accompanied by a student-run Twitter campaign under the slogan #FeesMustFall. Students expressed their reasoning for wanting free education, most claiming that it would open many more opportunities and ward off poverty. The social media movement has gained attention from media outlets such as CNN and The New York Times, granting it worldwide recognition.
Community organizations lent their support to the students. Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) organized the Economic Freedom March through Johannesburg to raise awareness for several goals, including no-interest loans for the poor and economic transformation. Thousands participated in the march.
According to Bandile Ngidi of Witwatersrand University, an important step toward making education free is “more radical openness about the universities’ expenditure. An unveiling of details of finances and plans that determined how the fee increments were arrived at.”
A major breakthrough for the campaign came on Oct. 23, when students rallied outside the Union Buildings to bring their protests straight to lawmakers. That same day, President Jacob Zuma announced that university fees would not be raised in the next year.
Four days after agreeing to freeze fee levels, President Zuma acknowledged that free tuition is a possibility in the future. In addition, he agreed to look further into issues that make education inaccessible to the poor.
“With President Zuma conceding to no rise in school fees, young South Africans are showing us that raising one’s voice is never in vain,” said Basani Baloyi and Gilad Isaacs of CNN.