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Why Are South African Students Protesting?

Students demanding free education react as they are fired at by riot police officers during a protest outside the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in October.
Students demanding free education react as they are fired at by riot police officers during a protest outside the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in October.
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Students have been protesting at universities across South Africa for several months.

At some universities, protesters have clashed with police or security officers.

The website Quartz Africa reports that more than 500 college students have been arrested since February. A number of schools have temporarily closed or suspended classes.

The protesters have what sounds like a simple, straightforward demand: free and quality education for all. Some are also demanding what they call decolonized education: changes to the study program to make the classes less European-centered.

The student movement is being called Fees Must Fall.

Free education is an idea that many people around the world can respect, and that few people in South Africa seriously disagree with.

Yet the protests are showing no sign of stopping since they began a year ago. In recent weeks, protests have spread to most of South Africa’s 26 universities, with clashes between students and police at some of them.

In September, the government announced that universities may raise fees by as much as 8 percent. The announcement fueled the most recent wave of protests. The protests first began last year when the government announced it would increase school fees by 10 to 12 percent. But the government cancelled its decision as a result of the protests.

A presidential spokesman believes there is no reason for students to be concerned about the rising costs. He says the government has promised to pay for the increase for poor students. That is about 75 percent of the student population.

Riot police officers patrol the campus ahead of student protests demanding free education at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, October 11,2016.
Riot police officers patrol the campus ahead of student protests demanding free education at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, October 11,2016.

Promises unmet

Twenty years have passed since the end of apartheid, South Africa’s former system of racial separation. Many studies, including a World Bank study in 2014, found that South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world. The World Bank study points to education as a means to reduce the differences between rich and poor.

Students are angry that the ruling African National Congress has failed to act on a promise of free education it made in 1994.

Just a few days ago, a report came out describing suspected corruption in the administration of President Jacob Zuma, which seems to further strengthen students’ cause.

Fasiha Hassan is a protest leader at University of the Witwatersrand, also known as “Wits,” in Johannesburg. An American reporter from National Public Radio (NPR) recently asked her whether the closings at universities were helping the protesters.

“Nobody’s getting an education. How is that in anybody’s interest?” the reporter asked.

Hassan described the reasons that a free university education is so urgent to South African students. She said that many blacks are receiving a poor quality education compared to whites. Because of this, she said, they have trouble gaining acceptance into universities.

Hassan told NPR that, even when a high school student is accepted into a university, the school is unlikely to pay for housing costs.

These struggling students may sleep in libraries and computer centers, Hassan said. Some months, they don’t have money for food. At her university, students launched a program to feed hungry students.

Many students say that the rise in school fees would make it impossible to return to classes next year.

The ends and the means

Protesters have used a number of methods to get their message heard.

For example, at some universities, they marched into classrooms, angering school administrators, teachers and students.

In October, an official at the University of Cape Town said protesters broke windows, forced open doors, and threw waste products into the halls of a university building.

Most of the protests have been peaceful. But students were shot at two months ago at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Security officers fired at the students during what appeared to be a peaceful demonstration. Police then used tear gas as they were deployed to student housing and across the campus grounds. That night, the campus’ law library was set on fire.

Some reports say the fire was set to answer abuse by law enforcement, including the rape of a female student.

On October 4, hundreds of student protesters marched through Wits singing a protest song, The Guardian newspaper reported.

The police fired tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets at students. Some protesters threw stones at security guards. Yet, other students offered flowers to police.

At the end of September, Universities South Africa estimated that $44 million in damages have been done to university property.

Jo Seoka is an Anglican bishop. He marched in an earlier protest at Wits. He said that police officers militarized the campus. The religious leader also said he believed the police were purposely not wearing identification on their uniforms.

The shape of things to come

Presidential spokesman Bongani Ngqulunga believes that students are competing with one another to make bigger demands. He says the problem is that many of the protests are being led by students who are not members of student government.

Filmmaker and social justice activist Rehad Desai is more sympathetic. He says that the student movement is still finding its direction and that the protesters are at the beginning stages of building this movement. “And they want to do that on the basis of as much agreement as possible. Now that takes time, to hear all voices and so on,” he said.

The protesters can agree on one thing:

“None of the students that are protesting want to be repeating the year,” said Thabo Boom, a law student and student council member at Wits.

So how do they get out of this situation? Bishop Ziphozihle Siwa is the head of the South African Council of Churches. He says a neutral negotiator is needed.

Siwa says the most important thing is “to calm the situation, get the police out of there and then continue the negotiations.” But, he adds that the students’ grievances started years before they were born -- when the government created a system to separate black and white, rich and poor.

President Zuma has formed a ministerial team to help bring an end to the clashes.

I’m Alice Bryant. And I’m Phil Dierking.

Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English. Her story was based on reports from, National Public Radio, The Guardian and other media organizations. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

fee - n. an amount of money that must be paid

library - n. a place where books, magazines, and other materials are available for people to use or borrow

campus - n. the area and buildings around a university, college, school, etc.

stun grenade - n. a non-lethal explosive device used to confuse a person’s sense; it makes a loud sound and a blinding flash of light.

uniform - n. a special kind of clothing that is worn by all the members of a group or organization, such as an army or team

grievance - n. a feeling of having been treated unfairly