South Africa Fees Must Fall

A student protest leader, Nompendulo Mkatshwa, holds up her fists as students march through the campus of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg on Wednesday, during a demonstration against fee hikes.

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For older South Africans, the dramatic scenes of students facing off against police in riot gear stirred a powerful sense of deja vu.

South Africa's parliament was the battleground. As Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene prepared to deliver a mid-term budget statement Wednesday, hundreds of students protesting a hike in tuition fees stormed the parliament compound gates, singing struggle songs and demanding to be heard.

"We want Blade!" they chanted, asking for Education Minister Blade Nzimande. Heavily armed police officers responded with stun grenades, pushing the students back in a confrontation broadcast live on national television and arresting many. 

UPDATE: Two days after that confrontation, facing worldwide condemnation, South African President Jacob Zuma today announced there would be no tuition hike for 2016. More details here. The social media hastag #feesmustfall has been replaced with #feeshavefallen.

Such images have drawn comparisons to the Soweto uprising of 1976, when students protesting against apartheid language policies were fired on by police.

For nearly a week, students at some of South Africa's biggest universities had protested the tuition increase. Protesters shut down the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and occupied buildings at Stellenbosch University and the University of Cape Town. The protests spread to at least a dozen campuses around the country.

The main complaint was that fee increases of between 10 and 12 percent will have an outsized impact on poorer black students who are already struggling to pay for a university education. Student leaders have rejected a government proposal to raise tuition six percent.

But the unease at university campuses started earlier this year, with protests against the lack of racial transformation, meaning, too few black professors and a white-dominated institutional culture.

Those protests managed to force the removal of a statue commemorating Cecil John Rhodes, the British colonialist, from the University of Cape Town. At Stellenbosch University, a plaque honoring Hendrik Verwoerd, a former prime minister considered the architect of racial apartheid, was finally removed, too.

It is against this backdrop, as well as a South African economy in the doldrums with persistently high unemployment, that we are seeing rising student activism on campuses. Since the first democratic elections in 1994, South Africa has been governed by the African National Congress, the political party of Nelson Mandela. Many of the ANC's leaders were imprisoned under apartheid for their activism.

But the ongoing protests have put in sharp relief a generational split between the students — so-called "born-frees," who never experienced apartheid — and the older "struggle generation" now in government, and increasingly viewed as being out of touch.

"They should have told us back then in '94 that they weren't fighting for the country," tweeted @lulu_luwela. "They were fighting for themselves."

While outside parliament on Wednesday the sound was of struggle songs and stun grenades, inside the sedate national assembly, the finance minister eventually delivered his mini-budget. Economic growth predictions for 2015 had been cut yet again, this time to just 1.5 percent.

This story originated and was cross-posted from our partners at the Global Post.

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