By Sona Mahendra:
Early last week, one of the premier academic institutions in the African continent, the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) witnessed a massive student body protest against it. The goals were to stage sit-ins and disrupt the everyday functioning of the University, making it ultimately ungovernable. This was done to fight the enormous fee increases that Wits proposed weeks earlier. This fee hike entailed the following: 10.5% increase on overall fees, 6% increase in the upfront payment, 9.4% increase in residence fees and a 10.7% increase in International student fees, all for the following year.
The Student Representative Council (SRC) recognised the burden that this increment would have on students, particularly on poor students, and thus organised a march/sit-in at all the entrances on the main campus last week Wednesday. This meant that no persons were able to get into or out of campus. Instead of quickly engaging with the protesters to hear their grievances, Wits Management opted to discard them as a ‘minority’ who were purposefully causing chaos on the premises. This only further fueled the anger and frustration of the students and the numbers supporting the protest grew to thousands.
During the course of the week, the students of other affiliated campuses (medical and education schools) joined the main campus where the students decided to occupy the main office building, Senate House, to garner attention for their cause. They insisted that no fee increases be applied for 2016 and demanded that the University Council, the main decision-making body of Wits, along with the Vice Chancellor, engage with them directly at Senate House. Even though the Council initially avoided the confrontation with the students, they succumbed to the pressure placed on them and elected to engage with the protesters late Friday evening.
The meeting between the two parties ran through the night and a statement was released in the early hours of the following morning that all the proposed fee increases would be suspended temporarily. Included in this historic victory was the promise by Council to address the student body at large the following Monday in a University Assembly where it would put forward new propositions with regards to this issue.
However, on Monday, because of poor communication between the Council and SRC on the venue of the Assembly, this meeting did not happen as neither party was willing to meet the other at their respective venues. Hence, students continued protesting on campus and at different parts of the day, the strike action even spilled onto the streets
Currently, Senate House is still under occupation and all academic activities on campus has been suspended till the following Monday. Also, in an unprecedented scenario (or maybe not) these student protests have spread to universities in other parts of the country (e.g. University of Cape Town, University of Pretoria, University of Fort Hare and many other colleges), all fighting similar exorbitant fee increases that have been applied to their institutions for 2016.
Tertiary education fees are already at their highest since 1994, with education costs outstripping inflation even. The cost of being a Wits scholar can range, depending on your degree choice, from somewhere around R 30,000 to R 60, 000 per annum (Rupees 140,000 – 300,000). If the duration of a general undergraduate degree is 3 years, one can expect to cough up about R150 000 before graduation day.
And all this before the proposed fee increase is taken into account.
A majority of students at Wits already depend on some form of financial aid and this is indicative of the fact a lack of funds for education is a frightening reality for many students. Also, almost 75% of the Wits student population is black, a community that has been maimed by the country’s racist past. Within this group, many black students still are facing the everyday challenges of poverty, some of them even residing in libraries secretly because of being unable to afford residence fees. Their one way to lift themselves and their families out of poverty is with the help of a tertiary qualification. However, the near-impossible fees being demanded of them only pushes them further away from a better reality. Hence, this fee increase not only is a financial burden to many, it will also continue to perpetuate the socio-economic inequality already present in the country.
The reasons provided for this increase by management are numerous: inflation, reduced subsidy from government, increase in prices of utilities etc. However, it is extremely unfair to place this entire burden on students alone, whose attainment of a degree is also cited as necessary to better the overall economy of South Africa. Other significant role players in the private sector, public sector and government have to participate in order to make tertiary education available to all who live in it.
The student protests have had to deal with many challenges this past week. Police have been called to physically remove students. Live ammunition has been brought onto campus. Tear gas has been used on protesters. Privileged students, citing the protests as an inconvenience to their academic activities, have decried the strike action. Racism from non-participating students has been rife. Sexism towards the female leadership from participating students has been present.
Regardless of all this, the student protests are pressing forward to fight for their right to access tertiary institutions. The youth of this country remain determined that they can pressurize government to heed their call and address the under-funding of universities. This student movement has evolved to become more inter-sectional: It is fighting patriarchy, racism and poverty at the same time and so deserves our unconditional support. While the students are united in their cause to fight the inequalities of the past and the injustices of the present, everyone waits with baited breath to see the outcome of this student revolution, our ‘student spring’.
In the meantime, A Luta Continua (The Struggle Continues).
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