Economic inequalities, race disparities fuelling varsity riots in South Africa

Monday November 21 2016

Students from the University of Johannesburg clash with campus security officers, as they attempt to enter inside the university, on October 22, 2015 during a protest against university fee hikes. AFP PHOTO | MUJAHID SAFODIEN

Images of violent battles in university campuses in South Africa as students protest under the hash tag #FeesMustFall have dominated the news in the past couple of months. The riots, which started in October, call for a decolonised curriculum and an end to racism.

Protesters have voiced their demands to university councils, ANC’s headquarters, parliament and the president’s office. However, some of the rioters have destroyed property and torched cars.

At the University of KwaZulu-Natal the destruction of property cost the institution R80 million ($5.7 million). Scores of student leaders were arrested for public violence and one of them, Lukhanyo Banda Mtshingana — who spent 31 days behind bars — was scheduled to appear in court, while another leader, Shaeera Kalla, is still recovering after being shot 13 times with rubber bullets.

Journalists have also been victims of police brutality.

The student leaders say the protests stem from poverty and inequality. This twin problem has persisted since the end of apartheid. This is an issue that President Jacob Zuma and opposition leaders, even the liberal right, agree on.

Annual tuition fees at South Africa’s world-class universities such as the universities of Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Stellenbosch and Wits average between R40,000 ($2,806) and R50,000 ($3,508). Universities such as Pretoria and Stellenbosch routinely draw ire for racism and limiting access for local students through discriminatory policies.


A student who takes three years to complete their degree will pay total tuition fees of $11,000. Add to that accommodation, food and other living expenses and the grand total exceeds $20,000.

To stretch their meagre budgets, underprivileged students undergo starvation, others are forced to live in slums like Crossroads and Khayelitsha in Cape Town. For poor students in Johannesburg, crammed favela skyscrapers like Hillbrow have become home.

High tuition fees and no jobs

One student living in Hillbrow spent eight years to attain her LLB from Wits University, after she gave up full-time studies at the end of her first year to find a job to supplement a government loan that covered only half her tuition fees.

Most varsities get 40 per cent to 50 per cent of their income from tuition fees. Government student aid scheme chairman Sizwe Nxasana said the fund will launch a pilot project in 2017 to grant poor students loans of up to $7,000 per year, with the loan payable when the student gets a job.

The problem of high tuition fees is compounded by a shortage of jobs. Data from StatsSA, an official agency, shows that one in two adults is jobless. Out of those with jobs, more than 50 per cent earn less than R10,000 ($700) per month, according to BankservAfrica Disposable Salary Index. Further, 12 million people, a fifth of the population, face food insecurity according to Food Bank SA.

The increasing levels of poverty make “the inequality of social justice more prominent,” said Mvuyo Tom, rector at the University of Fort Hare.

A North-West University study on post-apartheid higher education linked rising drop-out rates to high tuition fees. More than two-thirds of all candidates who drop out, especially in the first year, are from poor black households.

Race-pay gaps

In South Africa, the term “black” refers to people of African and Asian descent. In general, not only are black graduates often debt-ridden owing to study loans but some report race-pay gaps — a relic of apartheid. The study also found that white graduates are the majority at masters and PhD levels.

The issue of lack of funds also affects many schoolchildren from poor areas, even though the government funds free education until Grade 12. Working-class parents are barely able to buy their children lunch or winter clothes. In townships and rural schools, classrooms often have 50 to 120 pupils, says City Press. Not only are these schools overcrowded but they are also understaffed and ill-equipped.

Contrast that with suburban Model C schools in mostly white neighbourhoods where students thrive due to a mix of generous budgets, highly trained teachers, functional laboratories and libraries and extra-curricular programmes. Their $1,000 annual fees make them exclusive.

“To be honest, as much as the government is trying to provide free education to all learners in South Africa, there is still a large gap between what are considered Model C schools, and those considered disadvantaged,” says Marvel Makhubele is a young professional involved in Brain-G, an empowerment project designed to break the inter-generational poverty cycle.

Coming from a poor background himself, Makhubele is one of the few black South Africans with a masters degree in petroleum geology.

“Most of the learners in disadvantaged areas come to school hungry,” said Makhubele, who saw about 56 per cent of his classmates fail Grade 12. “Learners come from homes where there is probably one breadwinner in a family of six or more children. How do you teach a hungry kid?” he asks.

This disparity in wealth in South Africa, where the millionaire population is the 36th largest on the globe and executives earn seven figures annually. However, for ordinary citizens, salaries are on average five figures.

Graduates loitering

The National Union of Mineworkers noted that it would take 400 years for a mineworker to earn the annual salary of an executive at any mining firm. Exploitation is also reportedly rife on coastal farms where the average salary is $100 per month.

These low wages make it difficult for families to take their children to good schools or to university. The poor have to turn to the government and banks for loans — not every applicant is successful — or students have to find part-time work, which means taking a longer time to complete their studies.

Still most families from poor backgrounds place a high value on tertiary education. Twenty-year old student Luhle Dolosi said: “I’m the only hope for my family. I’m the only one who has a chance to take them out of poverty and I want to get educated and get a decent job.”

However, owing to the size of the market, not all graduates get jobs and as a result many can be found loitering in the streets.

Another group that is languishing is a marginalised segment that includes domestic workers. South Africa has in excess of one million domestic workers. According to StatsSA, they account for eight per cent of the labour force. The lucky few earn R50,000 ($3,500) annually, but transport alone costs them 15 per cent of their salaries owing to forced removals from city centres decades ago, notes a study by Darcy du Toit of the University of the Western Cape.

The student protests are fuelled by the demand to end the “commodification” and “commercialisation” of education in the country. “We cannot protest every year for a moratorium, there needs to be a greater structural solution to the crisis of higher education,” said the Wits University student council in a statement.

“We are out in the streets again... to lay the foundations of free decolonised education on campuses across the country,” Brian Kamanzi an electrical engineering masters student at the University of Cape Town said in an opinion piece. “South Africa’s education system is still rooted in the colonial and apartheid eras, and their injustices persist in its structure and financial set-up.