Fee protests point to a much deeper problem at South African universities

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students protests rock a rotten post-apartheid system in S/Africa

Ashley Fataar of Keep Left (the sister organisation of SWL in South Africa provides analysis of the students revolt in South Africa, from the barricades)

students protests rock a rotten post-apartheid system in S/Africa

Two weeks ago (14 October) students at Wits University in Johannesburg boycotted classes, shut down the campus and occupied the administration building. Beginning the following Monday, students at 20 of the 23 universities across the country embarked on similar actions. On the day that the President, Jacob Zuma, announced that fee increases were being scrapped, eye-witnesses report that between thirty and fifty thousand students besieged government offices in the capital Pretoria.

Why did these protests erupt?

Many students who enter South African universities are underprepared by poor schools in working-class townships and rural areas. As a result they struggle to deal with course-work. Furthermore, working class students have to work part-time to make ends meet. Having to deal with demanding courses between work-shifts results in impaired concentration and focus which results in frustration, stress and at times academic failure.

There is financial aid available. But it only gives loans or bursaries to people whose families earn below a certain income level. It means that many students face difficulties. It is really only the children of the 1% families who have no worries.

Is the fee increase the real issue?

Winning a cancellation of the fee increases is a victory. It is a victory for those who fought. It is a win against the hated policies of neo-liberalism. It is a win against the arrogance of the ANC government. It is a win against the police who viciously brutalised protesters.

However it is not the end.

University education has become a very difficult target for thousands of students. As a teacher in Bishop Lavis, a working class area in Cape Town, put it, “I was having a discussion with my students last week when the Wits students began protesting. They argued that even if they pass matric they can’t afford the costs associated with university or tertiary education. They argued that they were only being educated to work as till operators in super-markets or to join the criminal gangs. They questioned as to why they should therefore bother with writing final high school exams”

They are right. The win does not address the issue the issue of student debt. Universities will only award a degree if all fees are paid. Those who are fortunate to get loans have to pay them off.

As many students argue, the demand that fees must fall is not only that fee increases must fall but that there must be no fees at all. Even with the cancellation of the increase students from poor families will still bear the burden of paying fees.

In all the debate, the media have made much of who should pay university running costs. Yet a look at the published accounts of the University of Cape Town over the 5 years 2010 to 2014 shows that it has made an average daily profit of nearly R 590,000 – nearly 120 times what the average worker is paid a month. According to a recently published report, University Vice Chancellors take up to R 4.2 million a month – 840 times an average workers wage.

One of the other demands of students is that universities end the practice of outsourcing. Students at a number of campuses have led campaigns demanding that management of their respective universities ends this practise. At two universities, this campaign has been heating up. It has been given added profile by the protests over fee increases. As I write, workers from these two campuses are meeting to plan wild-cat strikes to demand that they be employed by the universities. Studies show that for the university to employ the workers directly, is the same cost.

Workers are also demanding decent working conditions. They are victimised and prevented from joining trade unions. Bosses refuse to recognise trade unions.

As students themselves argue “Let’s get rid of outsourcing. We cannot continue to tolerate the exploitation, victimisation and intimidation of outsourced workers. We cannot continue to not take responsibility when we are responsible. Forward to a living wage! The companies must go! The workers must stay!”

They are absolutely right to argue this.

It is the vicious policies of capitalism that cause misery for both workers and working class students. The rich must be taxed. Education must be free. Workers must be paid a living wage.

Until this happens South Africa will continue to see the protests that we are seeing now.

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