The governing party of South Africa, the ANC, has been shaken by a powerful student movement, and has been forced to make significant concessions.
Following running battles between #feesmustfall demonstrators and riot police in Cape Town and Pretoria, the ANC announced a freeze on tuition fees for 2016. With inflation running at regularly high rates of around 5% this will represent a real terms cut in tuition fees. This concession has not stopped the protests and many campuses remain shut, with students demanding a fully-funded free education system. This is not a flash in the pan movement. The South African Students’ Congress involved in organising many of the protests can look back on a history of disruption over accommodation and National Student Financial Aid schemes. The University of Limpopo, Mangosuthu University of Technology in Durban, Tshwane University of Technology, University of the Witwatersrand, Vaal University of Technology, Walter Sisulu University of Technology, False Bay College and the College of Cape Town have all had repeated protests and shut downs since 2004, escalating in recent years.
The student movement sits right on top of a demographic and socio-economic time-bomb in South African society. The post-apartheid generation have faced youth unemployment double that of the national average, (around 50%). At the same time education still bears the hallmarks of its apartheid legacy. According to the national census of 2011, among the South African population, 35.2% of black/African, 32.6% of coloured, 61.6% of Indians/Asian and 76% of white citizens have completed education to high school level or higher. They blame the rampantly corrupt ANC for this state of affairs, and consequently the 20-29 age group is more likely to have taken part in violent protests against the ANC than have voted for them. Meanwhile the ANC faces an older generation which is increasingly turning to militant trade union activity: the 2012 Marikana miners’ strike, which led to shootings of striking trade unionists, being the best known example. As capitalist state managers, the ANC are facing a growing squeeze. On the one hand the betrayals and lack of economic progress since 1994 are increasingly accumulating in the minds of their once solid loyal base. At the same time they face an economy in peril of being downgraded or tipping into recession. As in the UK they face demands from their bankrollers for South Africa’s equivalent to austerity and to reduce funding for higher education.
Militant South African protests have always rattled the largely white bourgeois investor class who in the face of upheaval attempt to ensure their money is safe. They are fundamentally opposed to any government moves which would see any higher taxes or wealth redistribution to pay for free education and end inequality in the education system. The freeze will leave a 2.6 billion rand hole in higher education finances. Already it seems some are trying to turn the student victory into opportunity, demanding that the private sector be allowed to fill the gap. The students face a hard struggle ahead and can expect many left-right zigzags from a government attempting to please the rich and shore up its haemorrhaging working class base. The fee freeze is a significant victory and is being rightly hailed as a major achievement in the face of arrests, police brutality and repression. If the victory provides encouragement, the student movement could come back stronger to achieve its historic demand for free education. It has a better chance than ever, facing a government that is running out of room for manoeuvre.