Faced with worst South African student protests in over 20 years, Zuma freezes university fees hike

The victory was a rare one in Africa, where very few such protests ever yield a compromise or a change of course.

SOUTH Africa’s government bowed to student demands to cap university fees next year, after thousands of demonstrators gathered outside President Jacob Zuma’s offices at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the capital, and clashed with police.

Zuma made the announcement to reporters following 10 days of demonstrations that led to violent clashes with the police and more than 100 arrests in the worst student protests since the end of apartheid in 1994.

“We agreed that there will be a zero increase of university fees in 2016,” Zuma said after meeting with student leaders and university management. The “government understands the difficulty faced by students from poor households and urges all affected to allow the process to unfold to find long-term solutions in order to ensure access to education by our students.”

The running battles continued following Zuma’s speech, after he failed to address the crowd as planned. Protesters hurled rocks and police responded by firing rubber bullets, teargas and stun grenades.

Widespread poverty

The protests reflect a wider frustration over the government’s inability to cut widespread poverty and inequality two decades after the end of white-minority rule. The government’s climb-down puts pressure on the Treasury to find more money to subsidise universities as debt continues to climb amid weak economic growth and the threat of a credit rating downgrade.

The rand weakened 1.2% to 13.5621 per dollar as of 3:30 p.m. in Johannesburg on Friday, extending losses this week to 3.5%.

“It is placing additional pressure on the fiscus at a time we really can’t afford it,” said Elna Moolman, an economist at Macquarie Group Ltd. in Johannesburg. “I would see this as a temporary stop-gap measure. This is just to calm the situation.”

Water cannons

Prior to Zuma’s announcement, clouds of teargas spread over the demonstrators, while one group of demonstrators chanted “no violence, no violence.” Protesters set fire to plastic portable toilets and pushed them toward police officers, who responded with water cannons to douse the flames and disperse the crowd. Some of the students had boarded dozens of buses to travel the 54 kilometers (34 miles) from Johannesburg to the capital.

Two days ago, thousands of demonstrators broke into the grounds of parliament as Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene presented a budget speech.

“We are here to fight for the people who don’t have money,” Lindo Buthelezi, 21, a student at the Tshwane University of Technology, said at the protest in Pretoria. “The government should help us get free education. We need education. That’s why we are fighting.”

First-year tuition at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where the protests started against a planned 10.5% fee increase, range from about 32,000 rand ($2,400) to more than 58,000 rand.

The students “have put the issue of access to higher education for all firmly on the agenda in a way that no one else has been able to do in the last 20 years,” Adam Habib, the university’s vice chancellor, said in a statement on its website. “We fully support their call for more funding. The single biggest challenge in our society is inequality. It can only truly be addressed if those in need have access to an affordable world-class education.”

The victory for the students was a rare one in Africa, where very few such protests ever yield a compromise, let alone a change of course.

-Bloomberg

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