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S. African university protesters face off with police
02:32 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Tens of thousands of students across the country are crippled with student debt

So for weeks, universities across South Africa have been scenes of often-violent protests

Johannesburg, South Africa CNN  — 

For hours the protesting students march through campus while the riot police wait.

As they move into academic buildings urging studying students out, some protestors wear bandanas around their faces, others carry sticks. They’re peaceful, but there is anger and frustration in their faces.

For more than a year across South Africa, students have been marching for free higher education – many of their parents fought Apartheid and they say this is their generation’s cause.

Student leader Busisiwe Seabe marches during Monday's protest. She says students feel abandoned by the government and the University of Witwatersrand.

“It is something that the youth has been calling for over 20 years now. We want more black students to be able to come to university and to have a better chance of participating in the economy,” said Busisiwe Seabe, a leader of the Fees Must Fall movement at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).

Like tens of thousands of others across the country, she is saddled with crippling student debt.

3 reasons why students are fighting for free education

Law student Mpendulo Mfeka is the first in his family to attend college.

Mpendulo Mfeka, law student

“Only two of us at the public school I attended were able to get to Wits. It pains me that most of my high school mates, who were as good as I am couldn’t make it to Wits because of financial means. The issue of free education is not a student issue, it’s a national issue. Because we are expected to get this education and help provide bread and other necessities, people need to understand is that when someone gets financially excluded, it is not just the individual being excluded but it’s the entire family, the black community.”

Accounting science student Palesa Rakwena says she's joined the movement because she was raised by a single mother who struggled financially with balancing student loans.

Palesa Rakwena, accounting science student

I kept thinking how is my mother going to juggle a teacher’s salary with my university fees and my brother’s school fees while trying to keep the household afloat. My main reason for joining this movement was because I come from a family where I was raised by my mother most of my life, my father wasn’t around so we felt financially constrained and balancing student loans and the rest of our life becomes a big challenge.”

Odwa Mjo is an international relations honors student and says it's important to fight for free education for those in future generations.

Odwa Mjo, international relations honors student

“If we fight for free education now we are one step closer to us benefiting from it and for the generations to come.”

Free higher education ‘impossible’: Officials

Rubber bullet casings and stones litter the main square at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg.

Government officials say free higher education is impossible in the short term. While they have promised to help poorest students, they have left fee increases in university hands and per student, government funding has actually gone down.

So for weeks, universities across South Africa have been scenes of often-violent protests that have not only put this academic term in jeopardy, but at times spread into surrounding areas.

On Monday when protesters at Wits University reached the Great Hall, the crowd surged. Seabe sprinted up the stairs where a column of private security guarded the entrance, urging them and the dean to open the doors: “The dean needs to open and she needs to open now,” she yelled.

“Otherwise,” added another protest leader, “they are going to start throwing stones.”

Protest leaders and professors have complained the police presence has militarized campuses throughout South Africa.

But the doors stayed shut, barricaded by private security,