This month the South African government announced an increase in public university student fees of six or more percent. Outraged students protested, beginning a campaign called “Fees Must Fall!” The minister of education Blade Nzimande laughed when he heard about the protest and said, “If the students don’t accept this we’ll start our own movement – students must fall.” One week later on October 23, South African President Jacob Zuma intervened to freeze the proposed fee increase. By October 29, Blade Nzimande was singing a different tune! In a recent interview, Nzimande said that public university education should be free to every South African. What changed? The student struggle grew and refused to be intimidated.
It wasn’t an accident that the minds of the politicians changed, they were faced with the force of a movement – the students of South Africa are on the march and it might have started with a fee increase but now they are going further, demanding free education for all. On October 21, thousands of students marched to the parliamentary precinct in Cape Town. On October 22 and 23 they demonstrated at President Zuma’s office building in Praetoria. The police met the students with tear gas and rubber bullets but this didn’t stop them and it became clear that the government was facing a nation-wide youth revolt. At that moment, Zuma held the press conference announcing that he would stop the fee increases for the coming year.
It is not simply that Zuma feared the students. As demonstrations escalated and tens of thousands took to the streets to protest his policies, he feared the protests would draw in the parents, family and other sections of South African society – that the struggle would spread to the working class.
The student movement is only the latest struggle to shake South Africa. In 2012, 34 mineworkers were killed in Marikana, part of a nation-wide strike of mineworkers against the dreadful conditions they face. That year, 2,300 major protests and strikes erupted across South Africa. These struggles remain fresh in the minds of everyone in the county.
It is no surprise that these struggles have broken out. South Africa is the most unequal of any major country in the world. Once the country was ruled by a brutal system of racial apartheid in which the descendents of European colonists ruled over the black majority. Apartheid was overthrown in 1994 by a mass mobilization. However, in spite of winning legal equality, the black majority remain the poorest section of the population. Today the poverty rate is 53 percent with those below the poverty line making less than two dollars per day. Meanwhile the wealthiest 10% take 58 percent of the total income of South Africa. In fact wealth inequality is worse than it was in 1993 when apartheid was on the verge of collapse.
In the midst of this poverty, education seems to promise possibilities for working people. But with fees increasing every year, only the richest students can attend college. This is the situation the students refused to accept. Why should the wealth of South Africa enrich a minority, most of whom inherit it from the days of apartheid.
It’s a question we could ask here in the U.S. Why should the wealth gained by exploitation belong to a small minority rather than those of us who have done the work of this society for centuries? The movement in South Africa is an example. It shows that people can fight back and begin to reverse the seemingly endless attacks on our lives.