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South Africa's 'fees must fall' protests are about more than tuition costs

A student holds a placard reading 'A placard with "Zuma must fall" outside the Luthuli House, the ANC headquarters, on October 22, 2015, in Johannesburg, during a demonstration of thousands of students against university fee hikes.

Story highlights

  • On Friday 23 October, in response to student protests, President Zuma of South Africa announced no increase in tuition fees.
  • Underlying causes of dissatisfaction remain, South Africa remains one of the world's most unequal societies.
  • In higher education, white males make up 53% of the staff population despite being only 8% of the population.

Basani Baloyi is an alumni of the University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg, South Africa) and PhD candidate in economics at SOAS, University of London
Gilad Isaacs
is a researcher in the School of Economics and Business Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand and also a PhD candidate at SOAS. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)An unprecedented movement of student activism has been sweeping South African university campuses and cities, culminating in a march on the historic Union Buildings on Friday 23 October, the seat of the South African government. Not since the Soweto Uprising of 1976 have this many youth arisen to demand the right to quality and accessible education.

The students have won their demand of a 0% increase in tuition fees, with planned fee increases of up to 11.5%, at the heart of the protests. However, as ongoing demonstrations prove, the students' demands have been deeper than this. They have called for the "decolonization" and "transformation" of higher education institutions, the insourcing of outsourced workers (mostly cleaning, security and support staff, often the most vulnerable workers), and the release of their classmates arrested earlier in the week.

    South Africa: more unequal now than during apartheid

    South Africa, by many measures, is the most unequal society in the world. A quick look at national statistics from 2014 shows that on average the top 10% of wage earners take home 90 times more in wages than bottom 10%, the top 1% earn 393 times the bottom 10%. Inequality, measured by the Gini coefficient (a measure in which 0 is perfect equality and 1 perfect inequality), is a staggering 0.66. Disturbingly, inequality has increased since the fall of apartheid.
    Working people cannot afford basic necessities. Recent research shows that a worker with an average of three dependents - all else remaining the same- will need to earn a wage of R4,125 (£200) a month to live above the poverty line. A shocking 60% of black African workers earn less than that, confirming that poverty, inequality and race in South Africa go hand-in-hand. Although state funding and university scholarships do exist, for many families university fees that can cost upwards of R40 000 (£2,000) make higher education an unattainable dream.
    South Africa's youth also face a broader crisis. A third of young people, aged 15 to 24, are not employed or in higher education and the unemployment rate for this group is 50%. Primary and secondary education is also woefully inadequate, with only 36% of students who start grade 1 completing their grade 12 exams. Once again, schools in black townships and rural areas have the least access to quality education. Not all protesting students come from poor backgrounds but they all agree about one thing: fees represent access, both to higher education and to a better, more prosperous life.

    Democratizing higher education

    South Africa Student protest tuition fee hikes
    The protests and student demands are not only about access but about the nature of higher education itself. Academia in South Africa remains a white, predominantly male space. In 2012, white academics made up 53% of full-time permanent academic staff. That is a staggering amount when you consider that white people make up only 8% of the population.
    An insufficient pool of "talented" black PhD students is one of the reasons given to explain the lack of advancement of black students into academic positions. In some fields there is a lack of black South African PhD graduates and they do remain underrepresented. This said, in 2013, on aggregate, 50% of PhD enrollments and 44% of graduates were black, with 44% of them female - most coming from highly respected universities. Therefore umbers alone cannot explain the marginalization of young black academics.
    Shifting the racial balance of staff is crucial to achieve meaningful reform but it is insufficient. White dominance is not just about numbers, it is about patterns of thinking and the style and content of teaching. This is why students have been calling for the "decolonization" of higher education. They recognize that a university education shapes the way we see the world and that there is the danger that without explicit intervention a Euro-centric view of the world, which marginalizes African voices, may continue to prevail irrespective of racial diversity in the teaching staff.
    Of course dissatisfaction with higher education is not unique to South Africa. In recent years students in the UK, Chile and elsewhere around the world, have asked their governments to provide the political will, bureaucratic competence and tax revenue to ensure that a university education remains within the reach of students who might desire it. With President Zuma conceding to no rise in school fees, young South Africans are showing us that raising one's voice is never in vain. The struggle will be long but the students have won the first battle, proving change can happen.