Clive Bheki Mtshali must wake up at 4:00 am each day to pursue a degree in civil engineering at the prestigious University of Witwatersrand. He dresses in a tiny rented room in the sprawling township of Soweto. Then he hails a crowded minibus taxi to school to drive him the 20 kilometers to the Nelson Mandela Bridge. At the bridge, Clive must walk pass muggers on the narrow concrete walkway above a river of metro cars, and finally on to campus.
The long commute is in some ways the least of his problems. For Clive and many of his classmates, his long trek each morning is a part of the larger struggle of attending university in South Africa. Although the ANC South African government promised to make education accessible to all people, students are still faced with making disproportionate sacrifices to pay for school. The cost of attending university has been increasing around 10 percent annually and students and their families are finding it difficult to keep up.
“An average degree, including meals and accommodation, at Wits is about 120,000 [Rand],” which is about $9,100, explained Kaamil Alli, a member of the Student Representative Council at the University of Witwatersrand, which is commonly known as Wits. That price tag makes Wits one of the more expensive universities in the country, but the challenge of paying for fees is prevalent on many other campuses. All major universities in South Africa received some funding from the government, but those subsidies have been dropping, looking to students to make up the funding gap.
Although the student fee rate has been historically high, the funding gap has placed further stress on university students. Amanda Mpisane, a second year student at the University of Johannesburg, described her first few days at university as traumatic. “I had no money, nowhere to sleep, but I had to make sure I could register. I had to sleep in toilettes to pay the 1,800 Rand for registration. My mother is a farmer; she doesn’t have that kind of money. How am I suppose to get into UJ, how am I suppose to live when they block us with such financial exclusion?” While most students were at orientation, Amanda remembers those first few nights on campus in a public restroom.
Her friend, Nikki Puzi, a second year student at UJ as well, also needed a place to sleep and was forced to rely on her fellow classmates, people she had just met. “When I came to Joburg I didn’t have a place to stay. And that was traumatic for me. My friend helped me by letting me use her room to sleep. It is very frustrating to get food from another student’s parents because your parents cannot afford it.” Puzi was able to eventually find a room to rent, but it is a three-hour one-way taxi ride from campus.
In the fall of 2015, not long after university officials announced yet another increase in fees, students across the country began to organize in protest. Soon the movement, facilitated on Twitter under the #FeesMustFall hashtag, turned into the largest mass protests in the country since the anti-Apartheid struggle.
At issue are not the fees themselves, those involved in the protests say, but in fact government responsibility, officials’ effectiveness, and the continuation of the fight for equality in South Africa.
The Fees Must Fall movement began at Tshwane University of Technology, located in the capital city of Pretoria, when students were unable to register due to outstanding fee debts. Students were also tired of the ineffectiveness of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), a governmental organization responsible for providing students loans, for not meeting its commitments to providing sufficient student funds.
A psychology student at the University of Johannesburg, Siphimandala Bongwana, explained how, “[his] roommate is very stressed right now because his name was not on the NSFAS list, not because he failed anything, but simply because NASFAS might have dropped him out and he cannot continue.” He paused and wrinkled his brow. “You begin to ask yourself, what’s the reason? Why? Because if the person had failed a subject, ok, but what happens if you meet the requirements and you are dropped? What can you do?”
The Fees Must Fall also dovetailed with Fallism, a movement calling for the decolonization of South African education. The movement gained traction online with the #RhodesMustFall hashtag, which was a campaign demanding the removal the statute of Cecil John Rhodes, a prominent British mining magnate and believer in British imperialism, that sits at the heart of the University of Cape Town’s campus.
The momentum of student activism has disseminated across the country. As students became more and more vocal in their demands, the universities were forced to respond. The #RhodesMustFall campaign led to the removal of the Rhodes statue in April 2015. Over the course of a week in October 2015, vice chancellors and students pressured the government to find the funds to achieve a zero percent increase. After a meeting with Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande, the vice chancellors issued a joint-letter supporting the zero increase. Vice Chancellor Adam Habib of Wits explained, “we sent that to the President [Zuma], had an engagement with the President on Friday with the students, and eventually the zero percent increase was agreed to. It was a great success.”
In the wake of the success of the zero percent increase, students began to vocalize more demands, like decolonizing the university curriculum and insourcing the non-academic university staff. The primary frustration was that students were still struggling and there seemed to be no political will to address the issue of fees. Students continued to protest into the rest of October 2015 when a handful of small fires started across the campus at Wits University, leading to two torched cars and the campus bookshop being set on fire. Patches of violent acts continued to occur on university campuses across the country. According to News24, a prominent South African news source, students burned campus artwork of white individuals connected to the university at the steps of the University of Cape Town in February 2016. The act was intended to be to speak out against the legacy of Apartheid and colonialism in South Africa.
On the Wits campus, Habib acknowledges that it was a minority of students responsible for these acts of violence, but the university needed to take steps to maintain the regular academic schedule. Private security was introduced onto campus during registration at the beginning of the 2016 academic year. In an open letter to the students, Habib and the Wits Management Team stated they hired a private security in the hopes of giving the institution more “operational control” in the wake of the violence. Habib stated my interview with him that “In that context, the question is what to do. So the only way we could continue registration was by bringing on private security.”
When classes started in February 2016, the private security continued on campus, and the violence was reduced. Other South African universities introduced private security onto campus with the hope of preventing these events from happening, but in some ways it has led to only more problems. At the University of KwaZulu-Natal, a group of students set the law library on fire once it was discovered a student was raped by a police officer in September. The increase in violence led to a stronger police force, which has changed the tone of the student-led protests.
A Student’s Protest Reality
Siwongwe Mata (Siwo for short) was a first-year student studying anthropology at Wits University. In the fall of 2016, Mata decided to attend a Fees Must Fall meeting in the Solomon House, a major building on campus, with her fellow students. Following the meeting, Mata was swooped into the protest that followed the meeting. Masses of Wits students exited Solomon House to marching in the streets of Braamfontein.
The goal was to march to Rosebank College to vocalize their frustration with the high university fees and the lack of political will to address it. It is difficult to know exactly how many students were present but Siwongwe estimates that there were at least a few thousand. The students marched past the campus entrance near the Wits Arts Museum and in the shades of other academic buildings.
As they poured out onto the streets of Braamfontein, Siwo recounts that police approached them and demanded that they disperse or the police would start shooting. Students started to retreat for fear of violence escalating. “I remember this moment when a student from the Student Representative Council told the crowd that they would be escorted through [Braamfontein] by the police,” Siwo recounted. She saw the police vans and a RG-31 Nyala, an armored police vehicle, in front of them, which brought back the feeling of militarization reminiscent of the apartheid days. “I’m thinking, ‘The police aren’t moving back to escort us, but I’m still thinking this is a peaceful movement,” Siwo recalled. She was even chatting with her friend right before the first shot.
Rubber bullets and stun grenades were tossed into the crowd. Siwo and her friend sprinted back to campus, passing the vehicle barrier to campus. Suddenly, “a stun grenade exploded on to my face and my friend’s.” The pain of the explosion was excruciating. Her skin was charred from the heat of the explosion caused by the chemicals of the stunt grenade. “I couldn’t hear, and I lunged over people to escape the chaos. It was like apartheid.” She was separated from her friend, but kept running to seek help.
Once she returned to campus, “I didn’t know what to do.” She stood surrounded by academic buildings, originally assembled to house intended to house the obtainment of knowledge. She touched her face and described it as “blood.” She found her friend and saw that is was burnt black, causing her to fear for what her face might look like in it given state. Wits medical students temporary bandaged her up and escorted her to the campus clinic.
Along with the obvious physical injuries from the protest, Siwo weathered psychological damage as well. While she was in the student clinic, someone dropped a table and the sound caused her to run out. “There are psychological damages to this,” referring to the mental and emotional impact of protest turned violent.
Student Burden Increasing
According to the Centre for Higher Education Trust, South African government subsidies for higher education have dropped by over 10 percent since 2000, making up less than 40% of higher education’s budget. Students have taken on the burden of the 10 percent gap with increased fees. There has also been an 8.3 percent drop in “real government subsidy per student”, which according to Philippe Burger, an economist at the University of the Free State, is a more accurate measurement of the lack of government funding.
The National Development Plan for South Africa laid out the 2030 goals for the nation, and higher education is an essential component. Over the years, there has been an increase in total government funding. According to the National Development Plan, student financial aid has increased from R10.3 million in 1994 to R14.6 billion for the 2016 academic year. Although funding has been increasing, it has not kept up with the university’s capacity growth. The number of students attending has nearly doubled in 1994 along with student demographic changes in that more black and Indian students are enrolled.
From the outside looking in, the struggles of these students have been trivialized. The media has mainly focused on the actions of the students protesting and the aftermath of protests that have led to violence. The media, but also those not directly involve tend to mitigate the struggles students are facing to carve out their future. Fungile Msibi, a master’s student at Wits University explained, “I would always have arguments with my older sister because she didn’t understand why it had to become so intense. It’s because people are poorer, just because we have 20 years of democracy it doesn’t mean that we’ve made it. We are struggling.”
In the wake of the student struggles, students observe the actions of politicians and they are appalled. As Fungile described it, “The government is squandering money, spending money on idiotic things. The ANC had a political party birthday celebration. How can you have a celebration worth millions when a portion of that could go towards students? Their priorities are not straight.”
On the home front, the families of university students work hard to save enough money to pay for university. It is also not simply the tuition payment, but also, the transportation, food, accommodation, and academic resources needed to be a full time university student. A continuous theme of from the university students that I spoke to was the pride and expectation placed on their daughters and sons when they are accepted to university. “The whole family is depending on you, the whole community is depending on you. Through him [university student], the whole community will benefit because it’s not about you as the individual, but the family,” as Siphimandala described his transition into university. He is from Kliptown, Soweto and one of only a handful of students who have been able to make it to university from his community.
During a conversation of students sharing their struggles, a student at the University of Johannesburg, Siyasisanda Makhwenkwe, looked up from her bureau and said, “We are all in the same boat.” She looked back down and presented a handful of student transcripts. The transcripts displayed the high marks that students achieved from provinces all across South Africa, indicating that they were fit to attend UJ. While holding the transcripts, Brian Matylia said with a wide smile, “being at varsity means that I’ve made it.”
The protests have continued for almost two years now and there is strong speculation that the protest will continue into the 2017 year. Students are still frustrated by the system and want to continue the fight for affordable, and eventually free, higher education. Funglie explained outside of the Wits Senate House, “the one thing that keeps us all going is knowing ‘I’m worth it. Someone will see me. I’ll get a job in the end.’ I think that’s what pushes everyone.” It’s almost 5:00 pm and Funglie heads out to catch the next bus to her apartment outside of Johannesburg, which could take up to two hours.
It’s 5:00 pm across campus, and Clive also realizes the time. He walks back over the Nelson Mandela Bridge to catch the mini-bus. Once he returns back to his room, he cannot study just quit yet because because his landlords are making noise catching up on their favorite soap opera. Clive is only able to start studying at 9:00 pm and will study until midnight. As his eyes close, he fights back the anxiety of payment deadlines and the pressure to make his family proud because he needs to be rested before his 4:00 am alarm. And his day will start again.