South African President Agrees to University Fee Freeze after Protests

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South African President Agrees to University Fee Freeze after Protests
Flames blazing from the site where a portable toilet was set ablaze on the south lawn of the Union Building in Pretoria

The South African president, Jacob Zuma, agreed to a freeze on university fees on Friday night after thousands of protesting students surrounded his offices and fought pitched battles with riot police.

The protests, in which demonstrators ripped down security fences, set fire to portable buildings, and hurl bricks at police, were the the latest in a week of disturbances prompted by anger at inflation-busting fee hikes.

On Friday, after meeting with student leaders and university officials, Mr Zuma bowed to mounting pressure and announced that there would be no fee increases for another year. He also promised to speed up reform in the country’s education system, which protesters claim still has legacies of the old apartheid system.

#Students from Stellenbosch University protest against fee hikes, through the centre of town

“We agreed that there will be a zero increase of university fees in 2016,” Mr Zuma told a televised press briefing. “In the long term, there is a package of issues that was raised at the meeting that needs to be followed up – these include free education, institutional autonomy (and) racism.”

Mr Zuma’s actions are a calculated reponse to a week of escalating unrest, with police using tear gas and stun grenades at protests across most of the country’s main cities.

The students’ demands were initially a halt to planned fee increases of up to 11 per cent which they say will hamper racial and social transformation in South Africa’s leading and historically white institutions, and a poorly-resourced and managed bursary system for poor students.

Tuition fees vary across different universities, but can run as high as 60,000 rand (£2,900) for medical students in a country where white households earn six times more than black households.

Universities point to a shortfall in government funding along with growing wage bills, a weakening currency and a need to keep up academic standards as the reasons for raising fees.

University management and staff, along with most South Africans, were initially frustrated by the protests, which saw universities blockaded, exams cancelled and traffic disrupted.

Over time however, the protests have broadened and tapped into widespread frustration at endemic government corruption which is linked to the failure to provide poor South Africans with basic services, housing, jobs and education.

#Students from Stellenbosch University protest against fee hikes, through the centre of town

Today’s students represent a “Born Free” generation with no experience of apartheid or the African National Congress’s (ANC)N battle against it, and therefore a potentially powerful political grouping.

Opposition groups are already making inroads in student representative councils and widespread protests could prompt the ANC to suffer losses at next year’s council elections, according to Anne Fruhauf, southern Africa analyst with Teneo Intelligence.

“It really gave the impression of a government that’s increasingly divorced from very, very real issues and grievances affecting South Africans,” she said.

With a vocal social media campaign under the hashtag #FeesMustFall, and the tacit involvement of political groups including Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters, which has a radical socialist agenda, the students’ demands have amplified into a call for a ban on further increase or even free education across the board.

#South African Police forces charge students on the south lawn of the Union Building in Pretoria

They have rejected an offer by government this week of a six per cent cap on fee increases, and continued to blockade universities around the country, prompting a general higher education shutdown.

Some have compared the student “uprising” to the protests against Afrikaans as the language of instruction in the 1970s, which culminated in the 1976 Soweto uprising which saw schoolchildren pelt rocks at police who responded with bullets, killing hundreds and injuring thousands.

On Wednesday, protesting students in Cape Town rushed the gates of parliament as Mr Zuma, ministers and MPs sat in the chamber for a budget speech. Riot police responded with coloured gas and stun grenades, and arrested scores of protesters including the son of the University of Cape Town vice-chancellor and the children of several prominent anti-apartheid activists.

On Thursday, thousands of students from the universities of Johannesburg and Witwatersrand marched through the city to Luthuli House, the headquarters of the ruling ANC where they handed a list of demands to Gwede Mantashe, its secretary general.

Vice-chancellors, roundly attacked by the students for their proposed fee increases and their irritated response to students blockading the universities, are now backing the calls for change.

#Flames blazing from the site where a portable toilet was set ablaze on the south lawn of the Union Building in Pretoria

In Cape Town, university staff donned gowns on Friday to march in solidarity with their students.

Adam Habib, the vice-chancellor of Johannesburg’s University of Witwatersrand, praised the protesting students for putting education on the national agenda, denounced “excessive” police handling of them and said he would press Mr Zuma in Friday’s meeting to make radical changes.

“The single biggest challenge in our society is inequality. It can only truly be addressed if those in need have access to an affordable world-class education,” he said.

“We will voice support for the students’ struggle and their demands. We hope in this meeting to reach a decisive agreement that will see an immediate resolution to the short-term crisis, and a substantive plan to resolve the long-term challenge of underfunding for higher education.”

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