Student protests over tuition fees have rocked South Africa’s universities for about a week. The protests have been so large that a number of universities across the country were shut down. Friday’s protest in the capital, Pretoria, attracted 10,000 people — the largest student protest since the famous 1976 Soweto anti-apartheid demonstration, according to the Guardian.
The protests were frequently met with riot police, occasionally equipped with tear gas and stun grenades. This kind of conflict is “not seen since the apartheid era,” the Financial Times‘ Andrew England reports.
Here’s where the protests came from — and why they’ve become such a big deal.
The protests began at the elite University of the Witwatersrand (called Wits) in Johannesburg, South Africa’s biggest city. On October 14, Wits students organized a mass rally against what they saw as exorbitant increases in fees: students were being asked to pay 10.5 percent more in tuition and other fees, as well as 6 percent more in an up-front registration fee.
According to David Dickinson, a sociologist at Wits and a member of its council, the university felt it needed to raise fees to stay afloat financially. Dickinson, who voted against the fee increase on the council, blames South Africa’s government for providing insufficient financial support to schools and students. Without more government support, he writes, many poor and middle class black South Africans will not be able to afford higher education.
“The increasing reduction of state subsidies…is turning Wits and other universities into de facto private institutions,” Dickinson writes. “Elite not on the basis of intellectual ability, but on the basis of social class.”
This anger over perceived race and class discrimination fueled the initial round of anti-fees protest at Wits. But similar issues affected universities across the country, not just Wits, and so the protests spread like wildfire. Social media hashtags like #FeesMustFall and #NationalShutdown helped student protestors organize and share information across the country.
The government seemed to have no answer for this protest: tear gas did little to quell their growth. By the end of last week, the New York Times reports, the protests had “spread outside the campuses, as students have leveled their ire directly at the government.” Demonstrators “and police officers clashed outside the Parliament building in Cape Town, and students marched on Wednesday to the headquarters here of the African National Congress.”