Kevin McParland is a PhD candidate in the School of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin. His research is focused on the impact of major physical infrastructure projects on the socio-economic lives of rural farming and fishing communities. He is currently completing an Erasmus Mundus mobility scholarship at University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape, South Africa.
Should higher education be free? That has been the question dominating a turbulent period on university campuses in South Africa since 19th September, when Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande delivered a highly anticipated speech on student fees for 2017.
Presenting a clunky statement in excess of 1800 words comprising a political masterclass in can-kicking and the invocation of ill-defined, emotive buzzwords (‘missing middle’ and ‘poor and working class students’ to the fore), Nzimande nonetheless succeeded in delivering a hospital pass to university councils and Vice-Chancellors by leaving the decision on fee increments for 2017 up to them and recommending that increments should not exceed 8% of existing fees. Following the demands for free education that galvanised the #FeesMustFall movement that launched on campuses in 2015, the response of student bodies and Student Representative Councils (SRCs) has been predictably hostile.
Five days after Nzimande’s statement, student shut-downs had taken hold at a number of campuses and talk of a prolonged nationwide student strike was emerging. The University of Cape Town, University of Witwatersrand, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, University of Pretoria and University of Free State either suspended all academic activities or were hit by mass student stay-aways. The Durban University of Technology and Limpopo University soon followed suit. Clashes with police and private university security staff were followed by the arrests of dozens of protesting students at University of Witwatersrand and University of Kwa Zulu Natal. At the University of Fort Hare Alice campus (where your author is currently enrolled), students have shut down classes since 12 September in response to security concerns on campus, which has escalated as a result of the fees announcement. Following the third mass meeting of that week between students and their SRC at Fort Hare on Wednesday 21st September, during which the SRC recommended that students return to class, a small group of students emerged from the meeting just after midnight and torched the Equicent Infrastructure Development building on campus. The student body defied the SRC and the stay-away continued. On 28th September the university announced a complete shutdown of all academic activities until 12th October.
So where does these events leave the demand for free education that sparked initial campus protests in 2015? Following the #FeesMustFall effort in 2015, South Africa’s ANC government froze the fees at the same level for 2016 and established a Presidential Commission tasked with recommending long-term measures on higher education funding. The Commission has yet to report its findings, but the vacuum created has opened up a furious debate between academics, students, politicians and university councils on the funding options for higher education. While the OECD average spend on tertiary education is 1.2% of GDP and the African average is 0.78%, in South Africa it sits at only 0.75% of GDP. On the back of Nzimande’s announcement, the shortfall in state funding for universities is to be made up through a combination of rising student debt and once-off, point of contact fee increases for wealthy students. The core demand of the #FeesMustFall movement, free education for all, has not been addressed.
Today’s generation of South African students are the first to have grown up in the post-apartheid era and therefore their demands and aspirations resonate beyond the university residence halls and campuses more than ever. It appears that the language of liberation and independence still invoked by the ANC leadership does not and will not resonate so persuasively with young people unless it also responds to their struggles for economic and social justice. President Jacob Zuma’s curious declaration in 2008-and repeated during the 2016 local elections campaign- that the ANC would rule until the second coming of Jesus Christ may be at risk from a newly politicised youth seeking a new settlement. 22 years after apartheid’s end and the ascension of Mandela’s ANC to office, the emotive issue of land reform remains unresolved. The continuing lack of adequate housing, basic sanitation, social infrastructure in both urban and rural areas, as well as youth unemployment and the mounting concerns about access to tertiary education, have all been cited as factors contributing to the downward trend in the ANC vote share. In the local government elections of 2016, the opposition Democratic Alliance took control of the strategically important municipalities of Nelson Mandela Bay and the City of Tshwane metropolitan area, as well the country’s economic hub of Johannesburg. For the first time since the first democratic elections in 1994, the ANC vote dipped below 60% of the national share gathering only 53.91%, compared to 61.95% in 2011 and 64.82% in the 2006 local government elections. The newly formed Economic Freedom Fighters, campaigning to the left of the ANC and contesting their first local elections in 2016, won more than 8% of the national vote.
Despite these trends and the call of #FeesMustFall protestors to be recognised as ‘students, not customers’, the proposals for university funding in 2017 are a continuation of the neoliberal ideology of the South African government. Rather than defending higher education as a universal public good, resourced and financed through progressive taxation incorporating a new tax bracket for high earners as proposed by Salim Valley of the University of Johannesburg amongst others, the dwindling state funding for universities has led simultaneously to reduced resources and a rising number of students dependent on private loans. The means to create the sustainable, free and productive higher education system demanded by students is available. The question is whether South African politicians- and indeed those elsewhere- have the stomach to make the case for a publically funded higher education system and the many economic, cultural and societal benefits that arise.
For this reason, it is reasonable to assume that the politicisation of this generation of students through the #FeesMustFall movement will resonate through the demands of students rooted in free education for all, democracy and institutional decolonisation in South Africa in the coming years. Whether that takes the form of a continued reactionary response or more proactive revolutionary reaction to the deeply embedded structural inequalities in South African society will be interesting to observe.