South African student protests rattle Zuma’s party; in 10 days they achieved what the opposition couldn't in 20 years

Public anger is mounting over a 25% unemployment rate, corruption, and one of the world’s highest levels of inequality.

SOUTH African university students accomplished in 10 days what opposition parties failed to do since the first all-race elections in 1994: successfully challenge the might of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

President Jacob Zuma bowed to demands on Friday that tuition costs be capped at current levels after the biggest student protests since the end of apartheid sparked running battles between demonstrators and riot police outside Parliament in Cape Town and the government head offices in Pretoria, the capital. 

The concession hasn’t completely quelled the unrest. Several campuses remained shut this week, with some students demanding that fees be scrapped altogether.

“This is a watershed event in post-apartheid South Africa,’’ said Mzukisi Qobo, an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg’s Pan African Institute, by phone. “The students have shown that it is possible to shake the political establishment. I think the fire will spread. Other organised formations will see that it is possible to twist the arm of government.’’

Public anger

While the ANC has won more than 60% of the vote in every election since 1994, public anger is mounting over a 25% unemployment rate and one of the world’s highest levels of inequality. The fee concession means the state and universities must find an additional 2.6 billion rand ($190 million) in funding at a time when the economy is close to a recession and facing a credit-rating downgrade.

The protests have rattled investors, with the rand slipping 4.2% against the dollar since the start of last week, the most of 24 emerging-market currencies monitored by Bloomberg.

They also come a few months before municipal elections in which opposition parties hope to wrest control of several major cities from the ANC, including Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Yet, the main opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters, may not be able to capitalise on the unrest because few students vote, said Keith Gotschalk, a retired politics lecturer, who taught at the University of the Western Cape.

Local elections

“There is relatively little connection between campus politics and national and local elections,’’ he said by phone from Cape Town. “The student protests will not necessarily translate into a swing at the polls.’’

While the ANC, Africa’s oldest political party, led the fight against apartheid rule, many students were born after Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black president.

Since then, student enrollment at South Africa’s universities has ballooned. In the four years through 2013, it rose 17% to 983,698, according to the Department of Higher Education. The government wants that number to rise to 1.6 million by 2030, and has opened three new universities since the start of last year.

Twitter campaign

The #FeesMustFall Twitter campaign was fuelled by rising student costs, including fees, housing food and textbooks that can exceed 100,000 rand a year.

First-year tuition alone at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where the protests started, ranges from about 32,000 rand to more than 58,000 rand.

The university’s student representative council, which agreed to resume classes on Wednesday while continuing to lobby for free education, condemned any attempt to politicise its campaign.

The protests were initiated “with the sole intention of advancing the student agenda,” the council said in a statement on its website. “This remains our sole premise.”

In a bid to deflect criticism of the ANC and his six-year-old administration, Zuma said the party has made education a top priority and decided in 2007 that it should progressively be made free to poor undergraduates.

Stun grenades

“The message from the students that were marching in the past week is therefore in line with ANC policy,’’ Zuma, 73, said in an Oct. 25 speech in the southern town of Port Elizabeth. “That is why the ANC came out in full support of the student protests.’’

The scenes of police using stun grenades to battle students outside Parliament and Zuma’s offices at the Union Buildings suggested that ANC has failed to persuade the students that it’s on their side.

“In the past, the ANC has claimed that they are the movement of the people in general and there is almost a symbiosis between them and the South African population,” said Dirk Kotze, a politics professor at the University of South Africa. “They cannot make that claim any more.’’


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