“If the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government.”
– Nelson Mandela to South Africa’s trade union congress, July 1993
In October South Africa faced the biggest protests since the end of apartheid in 1994. After the proposal of an annual upfront fee of R10,000 (£457)  in addition to a 10.5 per cent increase in tuition fees in 2016, demonstrations began at the University of Wiwatersand, Johannesburg. Protests spread to Rhodes University, Grahamstown and the University of Cape Town, and eventually spread nationwide as students rejected the hike in university tuition, with some calling for a total scrapping of fees. Yet amidst the discourse on the nature of education—is it a right or a privilege?—a larger issue emerged, that of racial equality and the lingering effects of apartheid in contemporary South Africa.
Ten per cent of South Africa’s population earn sixty to sixty-five per cent of the country’s income. In comparison, the same group in the United States controls forty-five to fifty per cent of income, and in Brazil, long considered one of the most unequal countries in the world, the top ten percent’s share is fifty-five to sixty per cent of income. Moreover, of the top one to five per cent of South Africa’s wealthiest, 80 percent are white, despite the fact that white South Africans account for only eight per cent of the population. In contrast, black Africans comprise 79 per cent of South Africa’s population, yet 60 per cent of working black Africans live below the poverty line. It is evidence of “this same structure of racial inequality that [South Africa] used to have” in the apartheid era, according to Thomas Picketty, ‘superstar’ economist and author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Evidence of the failure of the black economic empowerment policies—policies that were emplaced to lift black South Africans out of the poverty imposed upon them by the apartheid era government.
With these statistics comes the reality that increased tuition fees in South Africa propagate racial inequality. It is not news that poorer students are disproportionately affected by hikes in tuition fees than students from more affluent backgrounds, neither is it news that a correlation exists between poverty and low levels of education. For seven to eighteen year olds alone, lack of available funds to pay for school fees represents the number one reason why South Africans drop out of or do not attend school. Yet, tertiary education is considerably more expensive than primary or secondary education. At present, a university education, including books, accommodation and tuition, costs R100,000 (£4568) a year on average , while the typical disposable monthly salary is only R12,224 (£558). Effectively, this wrenches the opportunity of a further education out of the hands of many, particularly those who are poor, and in many cases black, and leads to the perpetuation of vicious cycles of structural poverty and racial inequality.
The hike in tertiary tuition becomes increasingly problematic when one considers the wider societal impact. Fifty per cent of South African youth between the ages of 15 and 24 are unemployed. That is to say, 50 per cent of young South Africans are either without employment or not acquiring skills to facilitate entry into the labour market. This is a dangerous reality given that an educated workforce is key to promoting long term economic development and, as Nicolas Barr, Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics notes, increasing social mobility, which could help produce greater racial equality. Even on a more individual level, this equates to many young South Africans that could have gone to become the next generation of artists, engineers, writers, historians, doctors—whatever their intended path—who are unable to tap into their full potential.
Although the South African government offers schemes and bursaries to help meet the cost of university education, funding has been insufficient to meet with increased university enrolment, which has more than doubled in the last two decades. The National Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) was established in 1994 to provide support to students, similar to the Student Loans Company (SLC) and the Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) in the UK, but despite an increase in the NSFAS’ budget from R441 million (£20 million) in 1999 to R9.5 billion (£434 million) in 2015. Rising inflation, rising tuition and the weakening of the rand (many materials are purchased in foreign markets) have meant that the amount of funding available per student has declined from R20,187 (£922) per head in 1994 to R16,764 (£766) in 2014. The reality of the matter is that the South African government is not allocating sufficient funds towards educating its population. Currently, government spending on tertiary education represents a paltry 0.75% of the national GDP; for comparison, this is lower than the average among other African countries (0.78%) and significantly less than the average spent by OECD countries (1.21%). Even the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, recognises that “the amount of government funding is not sufficient to meet the needs of the public university system” .
Nevertheless there is a need for increased spending to ensure that South African students gain a quality education, but the responsibility to produce change cannot solely be allocated to universities. Rather than aggravate already pervasive inequalities by raising tuition fees, and thereby excluding poor, often black, members of society, the onus falls on Jacob Zuma’s ANC (African National Congress) government to make education, at the very least, affordable for the majority of South Africans. After the end to apartheid in 1994, the ANC pledged free education for all, but has to date failed to live up to that promise. Some government officials may argue that the money to do so simply does not exist, but frankly, it is more a matter of priority. In 2011, Willie Hofmeyr, the former Head of the Special Investigating Unit for the South African government, estimated that R25 to R30 billion (£1.1 billion to £1.5 billion) per year was “lost to corruption in the state tender system alone”. President Zuma himself is not exempt from scrutiny; in the last few months Zuma has gone under fire for spending R246 million (£11 million) of public funds on Nkandla, his private homestead. Public money, South Africa’s money, the money of the people, is being wastefully misused and abused by government officials while in the last year, NSFAS has fallen short by R51 billion (£2.3 billion), which has meant that 50% of students that qualified for government support have been unable to receive funding.
#FeesMustFall was not just about rising university tuition fees, but about poverty and about frustration with a government that has consistently broken its promises, consistently failed to provide its people with the services and opportunities that they were not only promised, but those which they require to develop as a society and to progress from the apartheid-era of extreme racial and social inequality. Although fees may have fallen and Zuma has agreed to a 0% increase in 2016, that same stench of political betrayal clings to the air. Decades on, the dream of a democratic rainbow nation is still far. South Africans are angry—and rightfully so.