Facing Staggering Tuition Hikes, South African Students Protest – And Win, For Now

Stellenbosch University students gather on the Rooiplein at midnight to hear from organizers of the #feesmustfall movement to lower tuition and make university education affordable. (Bradley Andrews/YJI).

STELLENBOSCH, South Africa – Students all over the country brought institutions to a standstill this past week in a nationwide protest campaign known as #FeesMustFall.

The protests began in response to significant proposed tuition increases of up to 11.5 percent for the upcoming year – a jump that would make tertiary education unaffordable for the majority of South African students.

A spark of defiance was lit at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where mass student protests criticizing the fee increase made it impossible for the university to continue functioning normally.

Soon, universities across the country were forced to shut down due to powerful protest action from students.

At Stellenbosch University outside of Cape Town, the leaders of the #FeesMustFall movement made it clear from the get-go that they intended their protests to be peaceful, disrupting the university without harming anyone or causing any property damage.

And so it began.

Occupying the administration building

A group of more than 60 students occupied the university’s main administration buildings starting Monday, October 19.

They vowed to stay there until management was willing to engage with them to discuss their demand: a zero percent increase in tuition fees. No such engagement was made.

One of the student leaders, Kara Meiring, a second-year law student who chairs the Stellenbosch University Societies’ Council, made a public Twitter post shortly before midnight. “Management is NOT here and they are NOT engaging with us,” she wrote.

One of the texts from students inside the administration building.

About 4 a.m. the next morning, the protesters were served a court order and given two options: Peacefully vacate the building within 30 minutes, or be liable for arrest.

Riot officers soon entered the building, but no arrests were made. Fear spread among the occupants of the building.

More than eight uneasy hours later, the ultimatum to leave the building or face arrest was repeated.

Forty-six members of the movement decided to stay and accept arrest peacefully in the name of their cause. The police, however, did not arrest them.

“The police refused to arrest us, and, instead, resorted to violence against us,” said Lovelyn Nwadeyi, a leader of the #FeesMustFall movement in Stellenbosch and a participant in the sit-in. 

A newspaper chart of the proposed fee hikes.

“They were beating people, they were shoving and pushing people,” Nwadeyi said. “I had to remove a girl whose neck was stuck between two of their shields.”

Outside the building’s entrance, Lwazi Pakade, a member of the Student Representative Council, addressed the crowd of traumatized and crying students that had formed.

“They can expel me,” Pakade said. “They can arrest me. I am here for the students.”

Asked for clarification about the events that had taken place inside, police officers at the scene declined comment. 

Students at Stellenbosch University march against fee increases. (Bradley Andrews/YJI)

University response, then a mass march

On Tuesday, the university posted a statement on its Facebook page, calling the student protest an “illegal occupation,” but promising to keep discussions open.

The management of Stellenbosch University remains committed to continue with discussions with students on the issue of student fees, despite the illegal occupation of a university building that commenced on Monday afternoon.

In its Facebook post, the university said police cleared the building only after students refused to leave and ignored the court order.

The following two days saw a rise in support from students, lecturers and members of the public alike. People all over the country – and beyond – took to social media to share their grievances with the increasingly unaffordable tuition fees.

The movement also gained a large amount of criticism from students and members of the public who saw the protests as disruptive, disorderly and unreasonable.

On Wednesday, Oct. 21, the Stellenbosch University Student Representative Council organized a mass march against the fee increases.

Some of the texts favoring the protest.

Riot police monitoring the march – which was peaceful – declined comment on why they were carrying tear gas.

Prior to a press briefing on Wednesday following protests in Cape Town, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande apparently didn’t realize the cameras were already rolling when he joked
with people near him.

“If the students don’t accept this, we’ll start our own movement – students must fall,” Nzimande said, chortling heartily.

Students gather at midnight

Then, on Thursday night, hundreds of students gathered for a midnight mass meeting on the University’s central plaza, known as the “Rooiplein,” to discuss the plan of action for the following day.

Friday, Oct. 23 was the last day of class for the year.

Not everyone agreed with the protest.

Nwadeyi spoke, encouraging all students to support the movement, specifically addressing the many white students present.

“We cannot have you only show up at night, and not show up during the day,” Nwadeyi said. “Tomorrow is probably going to be our last opportunity to really make a clear statement. We need this turnout … we can no longer be seen as a group of noisy black students.”

The encouragement worked.

The next morning, protest action throughout the campus was in full storm. All across the country, citizens were in uproar. A shutdown seemed inevitable. Students at Stellenbosch took to the streets in preparation for a public meeting with the
University’s rector, Prof. Wim de Villiers.

A student at Stellenbosch University holds a sign protesting tuition fees. (Bradley Andrews/YJI)

Faith Pienaar, a postgraduate student and a leader of the #StelliesFeesMustFall collective, addressed the rector and the crowd.

“I want this institution to open the doors of access. We want this institution to transform,” Pienaar said.

At the same time, far away in the South African capital of Pretoria, thousands of students marched to the Union Building, awaiting an address from President Jacob Zuma.

Uneasy resolution

After further engagement with the movement’s leaders at Stellenbosch, de Villiers gave in to student demands and agreed to support the zero percent increase, lift the
court order and allow students an extra week to prepare for examinations.

A document was written up and signed.

Shortly thereafter, in another part of the country, Zuma announced that there would be no increase in university fees for the upcoming year.

Although most demonstrations have stopped, there are still one or two campuses where protests rage on, according to local news reports. And many students seem to feel that this is just the beginning.

“We want to see free education in our own lifetime,” said Nwadeyi, with determination.

 Megan Higgo is a Junior Reporter for Youth Journalism International.

The document signed by Prof. Wim de Villiers, committing to a zero percent fee increase for 2016. (Bradley Andrews/YJI)

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