Protests force S.Africa into U-turn on student fees hike
South African police on Friday fired rubber bullets and tear gas at students protesting outside government headquarters over hikes to university fees that President Jacob Zuma was forced to scrap after days of unrest.
Some demonstrators tried to force their way towards the Union Buildings in the capital Pretoria, tearing down a security fence, setting fire to portable toilets and hurling bricks at police lines in chaotic scenes.
Zuma had been due to address the volatile crowd of thousands after talks with student leaders and university officials inside the buildings, but instead he read a short statement at a televised press briefing.
“We agreed that there will be a zero increase of university fees in 2016,” he said.
“Government understands the difficulty faced by students from poor households, and urges all affected to allow the process to unfold to find long-term solutions in order to ensure access to education.”
Universities around the country have been closed over the last week as students protested against the proposed fee rises, which they say would mean poorer black youths were unable to study for degrees.
The issue of education fees has ignited widespread frustration in South Africa over a lack of opportunities for young people since the end of apartheid, worsened by a weakening economy and high unemployment.
After Zuma’s announcement, police fired rubber bullets to disperse the protest, sending terrified students scrambling for cover behind trees and vehicles.
“The government thinks we are playing, they think it’s because we want to run away from school,” Kgotsi Genge, a 22-year-old student at the University of Pretoria, told AFP.
“But we will keep fighting. South Africa needs to invest more in education. This movement is because we are being oppressed.”
– ‘Born-frees’ vent anger –
Earlier this week, hundreds of students incensed by plans to hike fees by up to 10 percent stormed the gates of parliament in Cape Town.
Protests have also erupted daily in Johannesburg, University of Fort Hare in Eastern Cape province and in several other cities.
“Police are shooting us with teargas, we’ve been betrayed. This thing could have been addressed so long ago,” Phineas Mashigo, a 24-year-old science student who was among the protesters in Pretoria, said.
“These people don’t care about us. I’ve never been violent, never thrown any stone. What I want is to go to school.”
The Union Buildings are the official seat of the South African government and where African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela was inaugurated president in 1994 after the collapse of white-supremacist apartheid rule.
Campus activism has been increasing this year as students — many of them so-called “born frees” who grew up after apartheid — vent their anger over continuing racial inequality.
“This is a crisis of legitimacy for the ANC just where they don’t want it — among the youth, and particularly among the university-educated youth,” Nic Borain, a political analyst, told AFP.
“The ANC is constantly experiencing opposition, hostility and revolt from the black middle-class.”
Tuition fees had been set to rise by up to 10 percent next year.
A general Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Cape Town (UCT) currently costs 46,000 rand ($3,400).
Zuma vowed to clamp down on racism and “institutional autonomy” — a reference to universities’ right to set their own fees, in an apparent attempt to steer criticism away from the ANC government.
Protests over education have a strong resonance in South Africa, where the 1976 Soweto uprising by schoolchildren against Afrikaans-language lessons was brutally suppressed by police.
Earlier this year, students at UCT led a high-profile and successful campaign for the removal of a statue of British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes from their campus.