#FeesMustFall: Primed for explosion
A resolution to the #FeesMustFall crisis will only be realised once the unresolved legacies of the past are attended to and long-term trust in government is restored, say research and policy organisations.
much like their contemporaries in the 1960s, South Africa’s modern youth have recognised the extent to which the student protest movement presents perhaps the most effective mechanism through which to communicate their often-overlooked grievances.
Following an announcement by higher education minister Blade Nzimande in September that university fees for 2017 would be capped at 8%, students took their discontent to campuses under the #FeesMustFall (FMF) banner, demanding the scrapping of university fees and the introduction of a free tertiary education system.
News images of impassioned students holding tightened fists aloft as they made their way across university campuses were, as protest actions intensified, soon replaced with the menacing bulk of riot vehicles, the haze of expelled teargas canisters and crouched riot police firing rubber bullets into swiftly scattering crowds.
The cost of damages to universities over this period is estimated to be in the region of R1bn.
While some think tanks have produced research pointing to the possibility of free access to tertiary education – most commonly through models that advocate for fees to be repaid to the state once the student enters the working world – other organisations have cautioned that even this is unlikely to resolve the underlying drivers of the sometimes-violent student uprisings.
According to the South African Institute of Race Relations’ (IRR’s) Sara Gon, the manner in which the protests have evolved “suggests strongly” that they are not driven purely by fees or access to higher education.
“The protests started with complaints about [mining magnate] Cecil John Rhodes and went on to accumulate complaints A Wits University student jumps up and down in front of a burning bus during the #FeesMustFall protests in October. about issues ranging from artworks, the curriculum and outsourcing of staff to student accommodation and a dearth of black academic staff,” she asserts.
“Each time universities looked set to accede to students’ demands, new demands were added. Each time a concession has been made, a new demand has taken its place and new excuses are found to destroy property and shut down campuses.”
The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) adds that campus protests cannot be resolved by dealing only with issues of free higher education, but that the unresolved legacies of the past must also be attended to.
“Feedback from students shows that the FMF movement is part of a longerterm social protest that is being recognised in the media and other forums. This also speaks to the fact that, as is indicated in our research, there is often a long period of non-violent protest, discussion and negotiation leading up to increased feelings of frustration and invisibility. This, along with the aggressive use of police and private security in the protests, increases the chance of violence,” it cautions.
Moreover, concerns expressed by students are not confined to particular institutional policies, but speak to a broader crisis in higher education.
Critically, the FMF debate must also be viewed in the broader context of corruption and the current low level of trust in government.
“Against a backdrop of the squandering of public funds on Nkandla, SAA, the SABC, claims of lack of funds for students are understandably treated with scorn.
“If South Africa wants to deal with the violence on campus then it needs to do more than simply deal with issues of university fees. It must also deal with the still-unresolved legacies of the past through addressing symbolic and structural oppression on campuses,” the CSVR asserts.
As such, any tertiary education transformation approaches need to ensure that students feel that they are