The biggest protests by South African university students in the post-apartheid era were fueled by mounting anger over the widespread poverty and inequality that persists since the country’s first multiracial elections in 1994.
A week of demonstrations at universities against plans to raise tuition peaked on Wednesday, when several thousand students stormed into the parliamentary precinct in Cape Town as Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene presented a gloomy picture of the economy in his mid-term budget speech. Riot police used batons and stun grenades to disperse them and arrested six people.
“The fees must fall campaign is not about fees,” Aubrey Matshiqi, a research fellow at the Johannesburg-based Helen Suzman Foundation said at a conference in Stellenbosch, near Cape Town on Thursday. “I do believe South Africa is sliding inexorably toward a perfect storm of discontent, the discontent of the poor, the working class and the middle class.”
While South Africa’s economy has more than doubled in size since the African National Congress took power in 1994, the benefits haven’t been shared equitably. A quarter of the workforce is unemployed, income inequality levels are among the highest in the world and white households on average earn six times more than their black counterparts, government data shows.
The police documented 2,289 violent demonstrations by communities demanding better housing, education and other services in the year through March, up from 1,907 the year before.
First-year tuition at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where the protests started, ranges from about 32,000 rand ($2,400) to more than 58,000 rand.
“I am here to demand free education that was promised to us,” Khanyiso Nkolwana, 22, a fashion-design student at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, said at the Wednesday protest. “It was promised to us in 1994.”
The government allocated 27.5 billion rand for tertiary education in the year through March 2016, which equates to 2 percent of total government spending, Nene’s mid-term budget shows. University student fees amount to 22 billion rand a year, according to Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande.
“Government has a limitation of what it can provide,” Nzimande told reporters in Cape Town on Wednesday. “We are very sympathetic to the issues being raised by the students. Of course university fees are very expensive.”
President Jacob Zuma, who secured a second five-year term last year after the ANC won its fifth election with 62 percent of the vote, was due to meet universities’ management and student leaders on Friday to discuss the fees crisis. Student groups have rejected Nzimande’s proposal to cap the tuition increases at 6 percent.
The ANC accused the police of using disproportionate and excessive force against the students, saying they had a legitimate right to protest.
“The situation at parliament, in particular, could have been avoided had the precincts of the institution been guarded properly,” Stone Sizani, the party’s chief whip in the legislature, said by email.
While there is no evidence that the student protests could lead to the toppling of the government, they do pose a serious challenge for the Zuma administration, said Theo Venter, a political analyst from North-West University in Potchefstroom, southwest of Johannesburg. With Nene anticipating growth of just 1.5 percent this year and battling to meet his tax collection targets, Venter sees has little scope for the government to allocate additional funds to education.
“There are definitely bigger issues at play here than fees,” he said by phone. “This is a manifestation of a much deeper problem about poverty and the inability of the government to address inequality.”