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