South Africa’s student protests: ignored by the world, a symptom of a global loss in faith that change is possible

The slogan #FeesMustFall resembles other cries for change like #BlackLivesMatter and the sad notion that they’re to no avail.

By Lenore Manderson, Distinguished Professor of Public Health and Medical Anthropology in the School of Public Health, The University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.


At a time when the US election is dominating the airwaves, it is hard to keep up with politics elsewhere in the world, and to reflect on how these illustrate wider problems. But #FeesMustFall, the protest against increased university tuition fees in South Africa, mirrors #BlackLivesMatter and other discontents across the globe. The movement highlights a wider loss of faith in transformational promises and the capacity of contemporary political systems to effect change.

The rise in tuition fees on 19 September 2016 was unsurprising. The protests that erupted as a result were also no surprise, given a prior #FeesMustFall campaign in 2015. Other student protests too, nationally, have drawn attention to persistent social exclusion on campuses, racism, sexism, gender-based violence, and the slow pace of decolonization. #FeesMustFall is a tagline for serious systemic problems.

Credit: Myolisi
Credit: Myolisi

South Africa is ranked by the World Bank as an “upper middle income” country.  But it has arguably the greatest inequality and the highest rate of unemployment at 26 percent in the world. The average annual household income was only 103,204 Rand (7,359 USD) in 2011, and there has been little change since then. Education is seen as crucial to economic growth and personal and national improvements to poverty, unemployment and structural disadvantage. In January 2016, following protests in October 2015, a national commission was established to explore the introduction of fee-free higher education to support this goal. It was still in process when the government announced the fee rise by up to eight percent, but also that it would cover the increase of fees for students from families earning less than 600,000 rand a year (42,600 USD).  Given economic inequality, one might argue that this was reasonable.

But #FeesMustFall indexes far wider issues related to the capacity of poor students to meet everyday living expenses—accommodation, food, clothing, transport, basic stationery, texts, and phone credit—while they study. #FeesMustFall indexes too the quality of education at all levels. It flags persistent direct and indirect racism in institutions of higher learning, and decries delays in transformation and decolonization that would reposition what and how we teach, and would support a critical analysis of a western canon and the continued inequality of knowledge production and consumption, referred to among health researchers as the 10:90 gap.

The fees campaign, and protests across all campuses against systems, structures and infrastructure, has developed with the support of parents, union members, and others in civil society in response to the failed promises of a new South Africa, when apartheid formally ended in 1994. Twenty-two years on, patience is thin.

Protests are in the sixth week, but university management has largely restored business as usual to the extent that classes have resumed and exams are underway. Universities will need graduate students to meet workforce demands, especially in health and education, when teaching starts in January, 2017. The failure to do so would result in further crises country-wide. Academics are among those torn between sharing the concerns of students, and the urgent need to fulfill teaching and learning commitments to meet societal needs. Academic departments are deeply fractured as faculty struggle over tactics, claims, and ways to resolve obvious inequities. They are torn too by violence, intimidation, and destruction of property Most students and their supporters have resorted to classic ‘weapons of the weak’ (whistles, stink bombs, feces, fire crackers, breast barring, chanting and dancing); stone throwing, fires, bomb threats and interpersonal violence are relatively limited. Academic and other staff, like students and others in the community, are dismayed both that the protests are continuing and that their control, and the resumption of university business, has required high levels of securitization. Increased private security personnel and police on campuses have poorly managed protests without recourse to rubber bullets, tear gas, arrests and imprisonment.

Given sustained protest, anger and dismay, there have been relatively few serious injuries, and the deaths that have occurred – at the University of the Witwatersrand, an office cleaner and student protestor – were not a result of targeted assault. Most concerning has been the silence of national government leaders, other than to express deep sadness of the death of a student leader on 21 October. But the protests, violence, destruction of property and disruption of university routines are not matters for individual universities, and cannot be resolved by local, internal responses. Student scepticism of gestures to change and distrust of those in authority flow from the unfulfilled promises made with the end of apartheid, contemporary problems with governance, and the difficulty of imagining a future in which they have a place. With local nuance, these are problems that affect us all.

Featured image courtesy of flickr.