Being South African, a recent University of Cape Town (UCT) graduate, having student debt and numerous friends still fighting the fight for free tertiary education in South Africa, the struggle for free education is very close to my heart. #RhodesMustFall took UCT by storm in 2015. The calls by the movement for a decolonised curriculum, university staff and environment went along with very strong calls for the removal of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes from the university campus. While many commentators tried to reduce the movement to only being about a statue, the calls for the removal of the statue were always accompanied with conversations about the lack of racial integration of the faculty and student body, the lack of gender sensitivity of the university administration and the eurocentric nature of many of the curricula.
Shortly after the removal of the statue, the government announced a 10% fees increase for public tertiary institutions in 2016. Shortly after the announcement, the #FeesMustFall movement started at the University of the Witwatersrand. This movement started the conversation amongst South African students about the need to provide free tertiary education in the country. While for many this was considered unrealistic, it is important to note that at this time, the government was embroiled in a number of public spending controversies.
These conversations and the movement as a whole also highlighted the racial inequalities in the country. This was most clearly illustrated by the varied media attention received by protest action and police brutality at different campuses. While historically black tertiary institutions like the University of Western Cape and Tshwane University of Technology had experienced a disproportionate amount of police violence and also had been calling for fee reductions prior to the creation of the movement, only when the protests started at historically white institutions like Wits University and UCT were these calls taken seriously by the government, the media and the general public.
While the fee increase was cancelled for 2016, South Africa is no closer to achieving free tertiary education. Many students are struggling with student debt, being excluded on financial grounds or are unable to even consider tertiary education due to the inability to pay the fees, access student loans or government assistance. Unfortunately, due to South Africa’s past, most of the people who are severely hindered by the exorbitant cost of tertiary education are young black people; People whose historical disadvantage does not seem so historical. While some have argued that free education is not feasible, in order to ensure that the discrimination of the past and present does not hinder the upward mobility of young black people in the country, the South African government and tertiary institutions in the country have to find a creative solution to make tertiary education more accessible for racially and economically disenfranchised in the country. Only when education is equally accessible for all and everyone in the country feels safe and equally represented in those spaces can South Africans begin to claim that steps have been made to overcoming inequality in education. There is absolutely no justification for the current state of affairs in South Africa, which privileges wealth (and in turn skin tone) for the access to education!
Picture Credit: See http://connect.citizen.co.za/news/26694/wits-feesmustfall-timeline-and-outcome/