Tens of thousands of students across the country are crippled with student debt
So for weeks, universities across South Africa have been scenes of often-violent protests
For hours the protesting students march through campus while the riot police wait.
As they move into academic buildings urging studying students out, some protestors wear bandanas around their faces, others carry sticks. They’re peaceful, but there is anger and frustration in their faces.
For more than a year across South Africa, students have been marching for free higher education – many of their parents fought Apartheid and they say this is their generation’s cause.
“It is something that the youth has been calling for over 20 years now. We want more black students to be able to come to university and to have a better chance of participating in the economy,” said Busisiwe Seabe, a leader of the Fees Must Fall movement at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).
Like tens of thousands of others across the country, she is saddled with crippling student debt.
3 reasons why students are fighting for free education
Mpendulo Mfeka, law student
“Only two of us at the public school I attended were able to get to Wits. It pains me that most of my high school mates, who were as good as I am couldn’t make it to Wits because of financial means. The issue of free education is not a student issue, it’s a national issue. Because we are expected to get this education and help provide bread and other necessities, people need to understand is that when someone gets financially excluded, it is not just the individual being excluded but it’s the entire family, the black community.”
Palesa Rakwena, accounting science student
I kept thinking how is my mother going to juggle a teacher’s salary with my university fees and my brother’s school fees while trying to keep the household afloat. My main reason for joining this movement was because I come from a family where I was raised by my mother most of my life, my father wasn’t around so we felt financially constrained and balancing student loans and the rest of our life becomes a big challenge.”
Odwa Mjo, international relations honors student
“If we fight for free education now we are one step closer to us benefiting from it and for the generations to come.”
Free higher education ‘impossible’: Officials
Government officials say free higher education is impossible in the short term. While they have promised to help poorest students, they have left fee increases in university hands and per student, government funding has actually gone down.
So for weeks, universities across South Africa have been scenes of often-violent protests that have not only put this academic term in jeopardy, but at times spread into surrounding areas.
On Monday when protesters at Wits University reached the Great Hall, the crowd surged. Seabe sprinted up the stairs where a column of private security guarded the entrance, urging them and the dean to open the doors: “The dean needs to open and she needs to open now,” she yelled.
“Otherwise,” added another protest leader, “they are going to start throwing stones.”
But the doors stayed shut, barricaded by private security, and stones flew.
Police responded with teargas, rubber bullets and stun grenades. And once again, their university’s main quad turns into a war zone between mistrusting factions.
Police Lieutenant General Khomotso Phahlane said police are often left with no option but to respond forcefully during protests: “It is extremely concerning to note that criminality, intimidation and attacks on police members have taken place at some universities, leaving the members deployed with no option but to respond with a degree of force in order to stabilize the situation.”
Distrust among protesters, the government and the university
Seabe said protesters don’t trust the government, or their university: “We can’t trust our own management to mediate on behalf of the state, because they can’t even come down and meet us in a simple general assembly. So that on its own shows that they will not be able to engage the state in good faith. And we do not trust them.”
University administrators say they’ve tried to engage several times with student leaders “to no avail,” and is “committed to the principle of working toward free education.”
They want the university to open its doors while protests continue, but say they have no authority in the implementation of free higher education even if they agree, in principle.
“This is a fight that we are going to have to do ourselves,” Seabe said, “And we are more than willing to do it.”
CNN’s David McKenzie contributed to this report.