The South African Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene was delayed in presenting his budget to parliament today when student protesters broke through the parliament gates. South African MP’s and riot police used a steady barrage of tear gas and flash grenades to push back the swelling mobs.
The protesters called for Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, yet pounded him with a barrage of water bottles while he begged them: “you asked me to speak. I’m pleading with you to let me speak.” His voice was drowned out by the angered cries of: “fees must fall, education for all, Blade must go.”
Public Colleges and Universities across the country have been shut down by widespread student protests over proposed tuition hikes. These hikes looked to combat a sea of rising costs for the South African education system. According to the Wall Street Journal, the 1.3-million public sector workers in South Africa were awarded a 10.1% raise this year. While some administrators were seeking tuition hikes as high as 11.5%, Nene’s budget proposal included a 6% cap on tuition increases. Even this lower tuition increase was still viewed as unacceptably high, and led to widespread student protests.
Protesters believe that these tuition hikes will exacerbate the higher education gap between black and white South Africans. According to the South African Council on Higher Education (CHE), only 16% of black South Africans enroll in higher education, compared to 57.4% of their white compatriots. The South African government recognized this demographic trend in 2001, and targeted a 20% participation rate by 2020. The CHE predicts that this goal will not be met.
Perhaps most shocking is the current state of tuition at public South African Universities. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Annual tuition and lodging fees [in South Africa] are roughly equal to the average annual South African income of $6,800.” While $6,800/year would be a bargain college diploma in the United States, it is nowhere near the average income in the US. The South African economy is in disarray, and its impacts are starting to have wider effects.
While students’ frustration with rising university costs has caused this outburst of protest, other economic factors also contribute to the size and scope of the protests. South African unemployment reached an 11-year high at 26.5% in May of this year. With millions of South Africans who are currently out of work, it is not surprising to see that the student unrest has spread nationwide.
South African lawmakers seemed to view the 6% tuition hike as a reasonable compromise (from 11.5%); student protesters are demanding “zero, zero, zero.” With rising education costs and a steady inflation rate of approximately 4.6%, the South African government is in a difficult spot: raise tuition or prevent unrest in the nation? This will be a question that plagues South African lawmakers, and their answers to it now may have repercussions for decades to come.