For S. Africa's leaders, a glimpse of their former selves in tuition hike protests

A new generation of student activists are at the forefront of protests against plans to raise university tuition prices. But they are also part of a long history of activism in South Africa – one that includes the very leaders they are standing against.

Mark Wessels/Reuters
Students protest over planned increases in tuition fees outside South Africa's Parliament in Cape Town, October 21, 2015. Riot police fired tear gas and stun grenades on Wednesday at hundreds of protesting students who stormed the parliament precinct in Cape Town to try to disrupt the reading of Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene's interim budget.

The mood inside South Africa’s Parliament in Cape Town Wednesday afternoon was sedate. Heavy-lidded legislators quietly scribbled notes and President Jacob Zuma sat stone-faced as Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene laid out the proposed terms of the country’s midterm budget.

 “Mr. President, we’re pursuing a new growth path to expand participation and adapt to the changing realities of the global landscape,” he said evenly, glancing down at his notes as he spoke. “As in the past, though times are tough, we can create a better future working together.”

Meanwhile, just out of earshot, screams and the heavy thud of exploding stun grenades filled the square in front of the Parliament as riot police violently forced back thousands of unarmed student protestors gathered outside its gates. With clouds of neon pink smoke from the grenades billowing around them, students fled tear gas and police batons, dropping backpacks and placards with messages like “Liberate Our Education” and “#FeesMustFall” behind them.

“Within an affordable medium term expenditure framework, we will build a more prosperous and equal South Africa,” Mr. Nene continued from the podium. 

The confrontation in front of Parliament — and the nearly three dozen arrests that followed – was in many ways a dramatic nonsequitor following a week of largely peaceful protests over university tuition hikes, which have now shut down more than a dozen institutions nationwide.

It was also, for many, particularly jarring to witness the contrast between business-as-usual in Parliament and the chaos outside in a country where most political leaders were themselves former activists who once stood on the opposite side of police barricades. President Zuma, for instance, spent 10 years in prison for his role in the armed wing of the anti-apartheid movement, and the minister of higher education, Blade Nzimande, is a former student leader and fiery trade unionist.

“Free higher education is my value is my ideal as a communist, but we live in a capitalist society,” Mr. Nzimande told journalists apologetically on the steps of Parliament Wednesday, after a brief address to students, who drowned out his speech with jeers and chants of "Blade Must Fall." 

“The country has enough resources to provide free higher education, but the resources are actually located in those who are rich," he said. "Government has a limitation.”

But a new generation of student activists – most of them born after the end of white rule in 1994 – says such limitation are unconscionable, particularly from leaders who know firsthand what it’s like to stand in their shoes. Instead, they are demanding to know why, a generation after the end of apartheid, higher education remains beyond the grasps of the vast majority of Black South Africans.

“I don’t want to make this about race, but yes, it’s about race,” says Nompumelelo Gumbi, who studies politics and philosophy at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg. “It’s black students protesting because it’s black students who don’t have the capital [to pay tuition]. Our parents fought for us to have this access [to universities] and now many of us are losing it over money. That doesn’t make any sense.”

'Our political leaders have betrayed us'

After a year that saw universities around South Africa shut down by protests over exclusionary language policies and statues of colonial figureheads, the current protests were touched off by an announcement earlier this month that Wits, one of South Africa’s premier universities, would raise fees by nearly 11 percent for the coming school year, to around $4,000 for most courses of study. 

“I was devastated when I heard,” said Zeina Biko, a second-year politics student. “The first thing that came to mind was my parents. My mom is a nurse. My dad doesn’t work. How are they going to afford this?”

And so last week, Ms. Biko – no relation to South Africa’s most famous student leader – joined thousands of her fellow students in demonstrations that filled campus and brimmed over into the surrounding city streets. Within days, their protests had spread to schools across the country, where they united under a pithy national slogan: #FeesMustFall.

If the immediate cause of student anger is tuition hikes, however, they have also touched a deep nerve here: about the glacial pace of change in many aspects of South African society since the end of apartheid 21 years ago.

Indeed, as demonstrators marched this week, their placards reads like a laundry list of post-apartheid South Africa’s social ills. “The patriarchy must fall with the fees,” reads one. “Our political leaders have betrayed us,” announced another. “Our parents were sold a dream in 1994 … we’re here for the refund,” proclaimed a third. 

A response too late

Although there have been limited reports of vandalism by protestors, the demonstrations have so far been almost entirely peaceful, with activists far more inclined to break into song than property as they parade through campuses and city streets.

In that regard, the protests echo for many the 1976 student uprising in the Johannesburg township of Soweto. Violently put down by apartheid police, it generated international outrage, and is widely considered the beginning of apartheid’s demise. Today, the event is even commemorated in a public holiday – Youth Day – on June 16.  

“There’s a real understanding in this country of the power that students can have to affect extraordinary change,” says Anne Heffernan, a historian of South African student activism at Wits. Leaders like Nzimande were once in the thick of that activism. “Now we’re just seeing it again, from a new generation.”

As demonstrations wore on Thursday in the shadow of the violent confrontation at Parliament, President Zuma pledged that he would meet Friday with student leaders and university representatives.

"Nobody disagrees with the message that students from poor households are facing financial difficulties and possible exclusion," he said in a statement Thursday, his first during the protest movement.  

For students, however, the responses of political leaders have been, for the most part, too little, too late. When Minister Nzimande finally stepped outside to address the protestors at Parliament yesterday, he greeted them with a call and response chant that has been a mainstay of South African protests for decades.  

"Amandla!" he chanted. Power. But instead of the usual response, "awethu!" (To the people) a loud boo rumbled up from the audience.

 “Ngawenu!" some of the protestors chanted back instead. To you!  

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