by Relebohile Phoofolo

In the early hours of the 14th of October, social media streams were clogged by images from the University of Witswatersrand, colloquially known as Wits, in Johannesburg. Students had barracaded entrances to the university as a protest to the proposed tuition increase, by just over 10%, for the upcoming academic year.

As the protests gained traction at Wits, which halted operations at the university, students within the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) law faculty spoke of a want to join those in Johannesburg, by booking trips back home, to join their friends in solidarity.

The solidarity stemmed more so from the shared sense of despair than the increase of tuition at Wits. As young black South African students enrolled at some of the best institutions on the continent, the struggle to find one’s place in these institutions was palatable. However, the proposed increase in tuition was a more concrete display of the barriers to realizing self actualization through education.

As UCT students left for home that Friday, little did most know that their anticipated final week of classes, before end-of-year exams began, would be disrupted by protest.

First news broke out from Rhodes University, in Grahmstown, that students were protesting the increased tuition percentage and the Minimum Initial Payment program, which sees students having to pay upwards of 30k Rands at the beginning of the academic year to secure their places at the university. Without the payment, registration for classes is suspended, and one may lose one’s place in the limited residential spaces the university has to offer.

Many studets across South Africa have been excluded from completing their studies, or put off from attending all together, from the exorbitantly high fees asked from them. That same Monday morning, news circulated that UCT students had barracaded the entrances to the university, which a day later included burning tyres on the main roads. Similar news across campuses in South Africa were shared on social networks, and what was first a Wits shutdown became a national shutdown.

The student`s call was clear: the proposed increase of tuition by over 10% was unaccebtable, and added to it, especially at the UCT, treatment of outsourced workers, namely those hired for costodial jobs, was to be abolished. The link between the two didn’t seem apparent, however an awareness of the interrelationship between race, class, and social mobility in the country would bring clarity as to why the two could not be seperated. For the many students protesting, their futures laid in their ability to afford higher education, and for the workers, whose chances at attending the universities they worked at were abismal, their fight to gain a decent livelihood hung on their employers treating them with the decency of, amongst other things, better pay.

These protests have forced us to engage on whether we believe higher education in South Africa is a right or a privilege. To think the latter seems delusional on many fronts, not withstanding the enshrined Constitutional Right to basic education, and the duty on the state to make further education progressively available and accessible.

Currently universities (and I am speaking about public universities of which the UCT is one) are able to set their own tuition rates, which in and of itself is uncontroversial. The problem lies in the fact that, knowing the socio-economic position of many South Africans, these fees are very high.

For perspective, I recently learned that to be within the top 5% income bracket in South Africa (I’m sure I don’t have to spell out how many people fit into that category in South Africa), you earn R300k (that’s currently under $30k) per annum. My tuition this year, excluding books, room and board, and other miscellaneous fees is around R60k—this is because at UCT you pay per course enrolled in (which has its [de]merits) and are valued according to it being a half year or full year course. That’s one fifth of your income spent, assuming you are a five percenter.

The government does offer financial aid through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS); however, unlike the US where most financial aid is need-based (if you need it they’ll fund it), only those below a certain income bracket are eligible for aid. Thus if you are above that poverty line, you are out of luck. Additionally, for those who do qualify, there is a national limit on how much aid is awarded per person in spite of how much your university fees actually are. So if the national limit cannot cover your full fees, again, good luck finding the rest.

To be fair, UCT does a good job supplementing financial aid to those who are eligible for aid but need further assistance, and for those who do not qualify for aid but are within a certain income bracket. The rest need to source assistance elsewhere, for which the streams are few and far between.

Essentially the message is: keep yourself poor enough to be eligible for aid.

Thus for some, the protests have been viewed as a middle class protest—a protest by those not poor enough for aid, yet not rich enough to afford the tuition. This sentiment has been compounded by the fact the the universities which have gained media traction for these protests were historically white universities and are now perceived to be attended predominantly by those who are financially better off. However, this view concentrates on only a small part of the truth. It ignores the fact that those on NSFAS may be excluded by the fee increases if their aid awards are no longer sufficient. Moreover, it supposes the economic stability of the South African middle class, which has been volitile since the advent of democracy.

Also, the issuance of loans as a means to bring one out of economic despair is extremely problematic. To place those who are already economically vulnerable into enormous debt, especially given the high unemployment rate in South Africa, is counter productive.

To relay my own story: even if I were to be hired by a top law firm which pays around (and above) the R300k, subtract tax, my loan payment amounts, the car they want me to have, and accommodation (since the option of living at home doesn’t exist for me in relation to where these law firms are situated), I’m lucky if my take home amount is R5k/month where petrol, food, and appropriate work attire would also need to be funded. These are things that keep me up at night and affect how I engage with tuition increases and the right to education.

At some point the protests went from being about the fee increases to being about free education (although some student organizations claim that this has always been the issue, evidenced in the hashtag #feesMustFall not #FeesMustNotIncrease—arguably the hash tag was piggy backing off the popular #RhodesMustFall hashtag and movement). At this stage this was no longer an attack on universities, but an attack on government policies. And so political parties, including the ruling party, disingenuously championed the cries of students.This culminated in the President announcing that fees across the country will not increase for the upcoming academic year.

This moment`s victory was lost in the turmoil happening outside the Union Buildings where the announcement was made where students were victims of offensive police force and arrests, some dumbfoundedly charged with high treason. This was a victory with a lot of grains of salt. This was also the turning point of the protests.

With the announcement made, some believed that it was over, and the university program would resume with delayed final exams to take place momentarily. However, student organizations highlighted that the President`s address only accounted for a sliver of their protests. There was no mention of free education and it being put to the table, and the whole conversation on outsourced workers was silenced. A decision had to be made whether to accept the victory and sit exams, or continue to protest until all demands were met.

Morally, this wasn’t an easy decision to make. On the one hand, a lot pegs on one sitting for final examinations, but to forget the workers who marched side by side with students, putting their employment on the line, would be to painfully discard their plight. Moreoever, would the commitment to no increase next year mean students would have to protest this time next year when tuition would need to be raised again?

This is where we saw ideological splits happening rather meliciously. A car at UCT`s plenary meeting assembly spot and a library at Wits were set alight. Damage to property across campuses happened, perhaps all in the name of “whatever means necessary.” Students were accused of being sell-outs; terminology used during apartheid to identify persons who were seen as apartheid spies were evoked, accusations of bribes from top government officials to end the protests were brought to the fore, even theories that the protests were a government ploy to make the President appear as the hero were circulated. There were two sides to the struggle now, those for “Protest and Pass,” a term first seen in relation to Wits campus which championed the idea to protest while studying with the anticipation of writing exams, and the other of complete university shutdown until all demands were appropriately addressed.

To demand that protests be suspended so that students could sit their exams, albeit of particular importance, comes across self-interested and disinterested in the troubles of workers. However, there is the reality that exams needed to be written. Thus, for the other side, the solution was simple: University Managment, abolish outsourcing.

While the quarrel as to which route the struggle should take occured, undoubtedly influenced by the continued protests which by this stage included workers abandoning their posts (including the security guards) and the desire to have exams take place within this calendar year, on the 28th of October, UCT management reached the decision to end outsourcing and to roll out a plan to absorb all the workers previously outsourced into the university`s payroll.

With these significant gains made by students and workers, we have finalized that exams will take place from the 9th of November, originally scheduled to begin on the 27th of October, with the option to defer to January, accounting for the jarring experience this has been whether you were at the forefront of the protest or following the events on social media, the news, and UCT’S website.

To some, these protests began back in March, when Chumani Maxwele tossed human feces on the Cecil John Rhodes statue at UCT, igniting the Rhodes Must Fall Campaign which brought to question issues of transformation and diversity at instiutions for higher education, not only of its student body, but what is taught, how, and by whom. Where the call to end outsourcing was clearly made. And where leadership and accountability were called into question. Chumani ends the year as one of the persons charged with high treason following the protests to Parliament during these latest events. At the time in March, many questioned the importance of the campaign to remove the statue. Some stated “it`s just a statue” others asked with an air of arrogance, “You remove the statue, and then what?”

This was what.