South Africa: Student protests erupt at Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg

While South Africa is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the end of the Apartheid regime, students at Wits University in Johannesburg are protesting against cuts in university funding and cuts in student bursaries.

Students at Wits University received letters on April 19 which announced that their bursaries will be cut by 50%. This would subsequently lead to a situation where 35% of the 25,000 students would be forced to leave university.

Enraged by the proposals, students gathered spontaneously to discuss how to organise protests against those proposals.

Students disrupted classes to explain the proposals to their fellow students and thousands of students at Wits joined in a continuous toyi-toyi (a traditional protest dance rooted in the Anti-Apartheid movement).

The initial reaction of the management of Wits University was to condemn the protests and to consider calling in the police and bouncers from night clubs in order to maintain what they called “law and order”.

The vice-chancellor, Loyiso Nongxa, whose car was damaged during the protests, and the outgoing minister of education, Kader Asmal, condemned the students’ actions.

The vice chancellor earning R700,000 a year commented that students needed to learn that they have got to pay for services.

Wits University, which is reported to have R7 billions in investments in stocks and bonds, claims that government cut backs have forced them to cut down the student financial aid budget by R80 million.

In order to save and defend their own privileges, the university authorities chose to make the poor students pay. This is another step to make education the privilege of the rich who can afford to pay for their studies while students from a working class or poor background will be confronted with a grim future. They are confronted with the prospect of either not being able to finish their studies or having to pay off a huge amount of debt, which will make a lot of working class children stay away from universities.

This is not only the case for Wits University but affects other universities, such as the University of KwaZulu Natal as well.

Socialist Student Movement (SSM), a campaigning organisation which was set up by Democratic Socialist Movement, the South African affiliate of the CWI, was active in the protests and explained that it is necessary to lead a campaign that demands the full reinstatement of the student bursaries. SSM argues the need for a campaign that rejects the idea that students become the victims of the neo-liberal agenda that is conducted by the ANC (African National Congress) government.

Unfortunately, the students’ struggle was hijacked by the unrepresentative Student Representative Council (SRC), and the ANC-aligned South African Student Congress and the ANC Youth League. The latter clearly came under pressure from the ANC leadership to restore order and to ensure that all the protests will be called off as soon as possible.

At the moment, it seems to be the case that they have succeeded in doing so. Following a long meeting with the Minister of Education and the university management last night, the SRC has agreed to call off the protests and has compromised on the issue of the 50% cuts in bursaries. The 50% cuts in financial aid have not been withdrawn but for the time being, no student will be forced to leave university.

It speaks for itself that that the SRC has agreed to join the university in a fundraising campaign and has agreed to give R400,000 of its own funds.

The protest at Wits University erupted as the 10th anniversary celebrations of the end of the Apartheid regime were taking place. They continued during the inauguration of the president on April 27. Mbeki acknowledged that “endemic and widespread poverty continue to disfigure the face of (the) country” and pledged that “the struggle to eradicate poverty has been and will continue to be a central part of the effort to build the new South Africa”.

However, the main reason why endemic and widespread poverty continues is because the ANC government has adopted a neo-liberal policy and programme which stands for privatisation and deregulation. The gap between rich and poor becomes bigger and the government is increasingly attacking the poor and the working class.

In effect, tuition fees deny the overwhelming majority of black working class students the possibility to go to university. Those who do manage to get into university and even finish their studies will leave university with huge debts. Their degrees are going to be withheld until the fees are paid.

So far, Mbeki has refused to accept an invitation to visit Wits University until the composition of the management team and staff reflects the demographics of the country. Mbeki complains that that the university is still controlled by a white “old guard”. The irony is however, that the proposed cuts will be implemented under the university’s first black vice-chancellor. The overwhelming majority of students affected by the cuts will be black working-class students.

While President Mbeki demands a “transformation” at the top of society and, subsequently, also at Wits University, his neo-liberal policy is the best guarantee that Wits University will once again turn into a predominantly white university as was the case under Apartheid.

The SRC’s compromise will not be a solution. It will only postpone the crisis. Even if it looks likely at the moment that those students who are threatened with immediate expulsions, will be allowed back into classes, the problem itself is not solved.

SSM says that education is a right and not a privilege of a minority. We believe that it is vital to campaign for the right for free and decent education for all. As long as politics are conducted in the interests of the rich, it is going to be the working class who will have to suffer.

SSM also explained that Wits is not an exception, similar developments are taking place in different universities across the country.

At the newly merged University of KwaZulu Natal, students are threatened with not being allowed to re-register for the next academic year if they are in debt. Students who are not registered don’t get their scripts marked.

The government’s cut backs have effectively ensured that so-called Historically Black Universities (created by the apartheid regime to keep education racially segregated), are starved of funds.

Fort Hare University, where many of the leaders of the South African liberation movement studied, has one photocopying machine for 7000 students.

The government boasts of producing the cheapest electricity in the world and the parasitical Eskom generates most of the continent’s electricity, but Fort Hare students have to cook their weekend meals on a Friday because the electricity cuts off on a Friday afternoon and only returns on Sunday afternoon.

Political student societies are not allowed to participate in SRC elections and students who enter the vice-chancellor’s office must have their shirts tucked in and remove their hats!

After the SSM was hosted on Fort Hare radio last month, it was shut down. The tertiary education merger process has reduced the number of universities from 36 to 21. It has led to an increase in tuition fees because the fees are adapted to the higher level of the merging institutions. It means that more and more black working class students will be excluded, aggravating a crisis that is forcing more than 1 million students to drop out of school every year from grade 1 — 11.

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April 2004