South Africa: Student protests follow months of lockdown frustration

The Wits University Great Hall. The recent protests began at Wits University in Johannesburg and spread to several other universities and a number of colleges (Photo: Samuella99/Wikimedia Commons)

Student protests have dominated headlines over the past two weeks in South Africa. The brutal and senseless killing of Mthokozisi Ntumba by police as he exited a clinic, unwittingly stepping into a confrontation between protesting students and police, has caused shock and outrage. Two student journalists were also shot with rubber bullets and injured.

The protests began at Wits University in Johannesburg and spread to several other universities and a number of vocational colleges. On Monday 15 March a ‘national shutdown’ was called.

The protests have coincided with the re-opening of campuses following delays to the beginning of the academic year due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Some institutions are still racing to complete the 2020 academic year. This gives an indication of the enormous disruption that students have faced over the past year as the country has moved between lockdown levels and stumbled between two ‘waves’ of the pandemic, with a third expected as winter begins. Restrictions on face-to-face teaching, access to university facilities such as labs and libraries, access to the infrastructure necessary for online learning like laptops and data, etc. have all fuelled frustration.

The pandemic, by accelerating and worsening capitalism’s economic crisis, has inflamed the crisis of student debt which has now reached a massive R13 billion ($885 million). This has raised the spectre of financial exclusions increasing as registration is denied to new and returning students with outstanding debts. This disproportionately affects students from poor and working class backgrounds every year. But the massive job losses, furloughs on reduced pay, etc., under the pandemic, affecting the ability of many more students’ families to assist with fees and living costs, has sharpened and deepened this student-debt problem. At Wits University a staggering 27,000 of the 37,500 students require some form of financial aid.

A number of university managements have already made concessions and allowed students with debt to register, linked to debt-repayment agreements. Other institutions will likely follow suit. In addition, the government has agreed to make more funding available to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), which pays bursaries and grants to the poorest students. These concessions are intended to dampen student’s anger and frustration and cut across any further spread or escalation of the protests

In the ANC-government’s February budget (listen to the MWP’s 11 March podcast dealing with the budget here) cuts of R24.6 billion ($1.67 billion) for the Department of Higher Education & Training (DHET) were initiated – R6.8 billion ($462 million) of which will be stripped away from NSFAS. This will guarantee that in future years fewer and fewer students from poor and working class backgrounds will be able to secure places in higher education. Already, 5.5 million under-30s are not in employment, education or training, with 63.2% of those aged 15-24 unemployed, an increase of 5% from just one year ago. This already desperate situation is set to worsen.

Cuts to education have been happening for years. What is different this time is that the ANC government’s medium- and long-term strategy is now to reduce access to higher education for future generations. In 2015 under the pressure of mass student protests, the ANC-government made concessions on fees. On the eve of the ANC’s 2017 Nasrec conference then-President Zuma announced his intention to introduce “free” higher education – a cynical move designed to promote the interests of his so-called ‘Radical Economic Transformation’ (RET) faction in the ANC’s internal war. This nevertheless created an expectation of free education which the Ramaphosa ANC-government must now banish as part of the generalised effort by the ruling class to pass the bill for the crisis of capitalism, including the sovereign-debt crisis, onto the working class. Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education, and Secretary-General of the SA “Communist” Party, in government with the ANC, has used the “difficult fiscal situation” to defend his complicity.


Inevitably comparisons are being drawn with the 2015 #FeesMustFall mass movement which forced the government to cancel a planned fee increase for the following year and placed the issue of free education firmly on the agenda. This movement represented a new development – the annual student struggles against financial and academic exclusions spread from the “historically black universities” to embrace the more elite “historically white universities” too.

#FMF itself built on a certain level of organisation amongst students that had developed earlier that year around the #RhodesMustFall protests, #Occupy protests in Tshwane, and others. These also led to an explosion of political debate around issues of racism, the ‘decolonisation’ of education and the unequal structure of society. Crucially, these new ‘networks’ had a level of independence from the student organisations that usually dominate ‘student politics’, such as the ANC’s South African Students Congress (Sasco), or the Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command (EFFSC) – the kindergartens of the capitalist parties that manage society and the economy in the interests of the bosses. This was attractive to the broader mass of students.

The current round of protests are nowhere near the scale or political level of the #FMF movement, notwithstanding the limitations that existed in that movement (see #FeesMustFall& the Struggle for Free Education, 2015-17). The current protests are dominated by the student political organisations, especially Sasco and EFFSC.

Petty bourgeois nationalism, always a strong feature of student politics, has its most reactionary side to the fore. Sasco leaders echo the rhetoric of the ANC’s corrupt RET faction. Indeed, they have been willing to openly identify themselves with former-President Zuma, whose corruption trial starts in May, and marched to the Constitutional Court on 11 March with ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, whose corruption trial begins in August! EFFSC leaders echo their parent organisation’s crude anti-white (and anti-Indian) economic nationalist programme. Trotsky’s description of the potential for the nationalism of the oppressed to be “the outer-shell of an immature Bolshevism” is almost entirely absent amongst the forces making the most radical noises, like the EFFSC. They are the least capable of identifying the immediate attacks on working class students with the broader struggle for the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society and the linking-up with the working class this would require (see Marxism vs Nationalism: What ideas do the youth need?).

The levels of solidarity that existed across institutions in #FMF is missing too. EFFSC, Sasco and the South African Union of Students – representing the official student unions at SA’s 26 universities, the Student Representative Councils (SRCs), and therefore also dominated by the student political organisations – all seem to have made rival shutdown calls ahead of 15 March, jockeying with each other for dominance as attempts to spread the national shutdown are made. However, at least two SRCs refused to support the national shutdown and others were clearly luke-warm.

But the most important difference with #FMF is that in the current protests the overwhelming majority of students most directly affected by financial exclusion are not actively participating. #FMF mobilised tens of thousands – not only students who would face academic exclusion if the fee increases were implemented, but, importantly, students who would not, but wanted to take part in a united struggle of all students to transform higher education from root to branch.

Even after two weeks, none of the protests at Wits University appear to have exceeded one to two hundred in an institution with 37,500 enrolled students. These are protests by politically-aligned student activists protesting on behalf of the vast majority but making no serious efforts to involve the broader student-body in democratic consultations or the planning of protests. It is the top-down method of the ANC and EFF. The Sasco-led Wits SRC, currently seen as the ‘leaders’ of the protest movement, was elected last year on a turnout of only 25.23%, barely scrapping the 25% threshold to be declared “duly elected”.

Way Forward

We believe that the vast majority of students will be watching the protests with sympathy, hoping for victories, but will be completely repulsed by the political affiliation and methods of those currently dominating the leadership.

Those students watching with itchy feet, eager to hit the streets, but currently holding back, as well as any genuine activists in Sasco, EFFSC, etc. must make the call for the building of a new and independent mass socialist student and youth movement. This is the unfinished business of #FMF. After the 2016 fee increase was defeated the mass movement ebbed. The student political organisations that had been forced to follow the mood of the mass movement regained their footing and re-directed the ebbing movement for their own narrow political advantage.

The starting point of building such a movement should be the convening of mass campus-based student assemblies. These could draw more students into the protest movement. Crucially, they should elect democratic and accountable leadership to exercise day-to-day control over the programme of protest action, demands, and any negotiations with management, government departments, and ministers. Assemblies could then link-up on a national basis, creating the first outline of a genuinely national and co-ordinated movement. TVET students and the unemployed/NEET youth languishing in the townships must be drawn into such a movement.

It will be crucial for students to link-up with workers in the trade union movement. The cuts to the DHET are being replicated across every government department. The running down of public services will affect workers and communities. Public sector workers have recently had the final-leg of a three-year pay deal scrapped by the ANC government and a further three-year pay freeze threatened. An attack of this scale cannot be defeated by students alone. Students need to link-up with workers fighting the budget and pay cuts and unite their demands in a powerful new movement. In addition to leading the struggle for free education, such a movement must fill the political vacuum, currently filled by the capitalist parties and their student-wings, by consciously joining forces with the efforts currently underway in the Saftu trade union federation to create a mass socialist mass workers party.

  • Free education – NOW! No to Financial Exclusions
  • Cancel ALL student debt – current and historic
  • No to police brutality! Demilitarise the police

[1] “NSFAS funds, jobs for youth dry up”, Mail & Guardian (12 March 2021)

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March 2021