South African students stop fee hikes, fight for their future

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Growing protests against the South African government of the African National Congress (ANC) have spread to campuses. In October 2015, thousands of college students nationwide rallied to stop planned tuition hikes of 10-12 percent. Students at nearly every major university shut down their schools. They engaged campus workers in the struggle and turned #feesmustfall into more than a hashtag. And the fee protest led them to a broader demand: equality.

South African youth are fed up with the unfulfilled promises of the post-apartheid era. Today’s reality is a doubling of education costs since 2008; a pitiful 15 percent graduation rate partially due to the high price of tuition; double-digit youth unemployment; more than half the population living below the poverty line; and whites making six times more than Blacks.

So when the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg voted to raise tuition fees 10.5 percent because of reduced government funding and the falling South African currency, the administration met angry resistance. On Oct. 14, 2015, hundreds of students sat down in the school’s entrances and thousands more blocked the roads. Within days, students from other schools facing similar hikes joined the struggle.

Although more Blacks are in universities, they are frustrated with still being taught from a European-centric perspective that ignores the contributions of the majority. Along with protesting rises in tuition, students demanded a curriculum that focused on the history and struggles of Blacks. They want to learn their own history and have professors and administrators who reflect the composition of the general population — a first step in educating the next generation of leaders.

Student and worker solidarity. An important element of the struggle was the demand to stop outsourcing campus jobs. Before the #feesmustfall demonstrations, students were organizing actions in support of outsourced workers and calling for keeping jobs on campus. University staff came out in support of the students. Said Dr. Nosipho Mngomezulu, a Black female scholar who marched alongside students, “Housekeeping and maintenance staff joined us. We sang ‘Mama we ma, iyeza isocialism!’ (Mom, socialism is coming!)”

It is significant that students showed they fully understand the connection between affordable education and the need for job protections for low-paid workers.

Since the fee protests ended, the University of the Witwatersrand and University of Cape Town have agreed to stop outsourcing. The University of the Western Cape announced that all outsourced staff will receive a monthly allowance of 2,000 rands (about $119 USD). Cleaning staff at the University of Johannesburg settled their three-week strike, with management agreeing to pay an additional 1,000 rands a month and to complete its insourcing by mid-2017. On Nov. 17, students and workers at Stellenbosch University went on strike over outsourcing.

For a socialist South African Spring. When President Zuma told the media there would be no fee increase in 2016, he thought the students would be appeased. Instead, protesters were indignant that Zuma hadn’t addressed them directly.

During the protests, the police assaulted students and supporters with stun grenades and tear gas in a bid to terrorize them. But the attacks were shouted down with “Amandla! Awulethu!” (Power! To us!) — the same chants used to face down the apartheid tanks. Students are unafraid of police violence and know that the ANC does not represent them.

For the South African revolution to move beyond Black rule under a capitalist model, it must finish what was started, which means fighting for socialism. South African youth have shown their leadership ability. By continuing to connect their struggles as students to their parents’ struggles as workers, they will build the movement for radical change.

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