The 23 October 2015 will go down in history as the day the students born after apartheid picked up the baton of the Class of 1976. At about 4pm in the afternoon the President of the Republic, Jacob Zuma, made an announcement that the #FeesMustFall movement has been victorious. The state and the Vice-Chancellors agreed to a moratorium on fee increases in 2016. They also agreed that the state, the university authorities and the students will now look into the issue of how to achieve free education, among other issues.
The largest wave of student struggles in post apartheid South Africa had swept across the country’s tertiary institutions creating a national crisis for the ANC Government while capturing the imagination and support of large sections of the public. For the first time in coordinated action students from at least seventeen out of twenty-six universities nationally – including Pretoria, UKZN, UCT, WITS, Limpopo, Stellenbosch, Rhodes, Fort Hare, the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Tshwane University of Technology, UWC and Peninsula Technikon– have rallied to actively support the #FeesMustFall movement. Significantly, students from the former ethnically based apartheid universities, ‘white’ and ‘black’ are engaged in a movement demanding free education and zero % increase in fees.
The current student activism was sparked by Wits University’s unilateral announcement of a 10.5% increase in fees for 2016. On Wednesday, 14th October 2015, students rejected the proposed fee increase and peacefully occupied university entrances, effectively closing Wits down. After engagement with the Vice Chancellor, Adam Habib, and the Wits Council in a mass meeting, the University agreed to suspend the fee increase to give the Council time to discuss and report-back to students on Monday (19 October). During the occupation the students renamed Senate House after freedom fighter, Solomon Mahlangu. Besides invoking the spirit of Mahlangu in their struggle for free education, this also reflected broader struggles at Wits (and other universities) for transformation.
While Council failed to report-back to students on Monday, Wits students successfully suspended the fee increase and this victory rapidly spurred on students throughout the country and the #WitsFeesMustFall movement became the #FeesHaveFallen. Students at UCT, UP, Rhodes, and Fort Hare joined the movement.
Despite calls to intervene, Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande denied that there was a ‘crisis’ in higher education. By Monday the #FeesMustFall movement demanded that Nzimande urgently address the national crisis. On Tuesday Nzimande announced a 6% cap on all fee increases but students rejected this, preparing for a national day to shutdown all universities.
Wednesday, 21 October 2015, was indeed unforgettable and historic, when thousands of students from 17 universities across the country joined peaceful marches and protests as the #FeesMustFall movement. Students converged on all the major cities in South Africa, including Parliament. Almost 40 years after students’ demand for free quality education in 1976, the first born-free generation, or ‘Class of 2015’, have made their voices heard nationally. The peaceful protests have highlighted the daily harsh conditions of many black working class students. Students struggle to pay for decent accommodation; many go hungry as working class parents battle to pay fees. However, the many students who have been excluded over the years due to non-payment of fees should be remembered as this highlights the depth and importance of this issue for society.
The #FeesMustFall movement has garnered support from large sections of the public. Many also support the demand for free education. “The government bails out ESKOM, the SABC and SAA, look at all the corruption scandals and the wastage of public resources, free education is an investment in all of us!” said one supporter.