In 2015, University of the Witwatersrand vice-chancellor Adam Habib had to leave a higher education transformation summit hosted by the department of higher education and training in Durban and rush back to Johannesburg.
Students had demanded his return so he could address them about a proposed 10% fee hike for 2016, which they rejected.
At the time, Habib was the chairperson of Universities South Africa and was scheduled to be one of the speakers at the three-day summit but he could not take the podium. He barely spent a minute inside the venue. Instead, he paced up and down outside the International Convention Centre, trying to manage the situation from Durban on his phone, but it didn’t work. So he gave up and returned to Wits and the striking students.
On the Monday, after the former minister of higher education and training, Blade Nzimande, had concluded the summit, the protests spread to other campuses. Soon after, in October 2015, there was a national shutdown of the universities. #FeesMustFall was born.
The anger swelled up and, on October 23 2015, thousands of students marched through the streets of Pretoria and headed to the Union Buildings where former president Jacob Zuma was locked in a meeting with the vice-chancellors to discuss a way forward. Ugly and violent scenes started playing out between students and the police after the students had waited for hours to hear an announcement by Zuma.
Before this, students from the Gauteng universities had marched to the ANC’s Luthuli House headquarters to deliver a memorandum to the governing party, which had promised free higher education at its 2007 Polokwane elective conference. Standing outside the building, students had refused to be addressed by the ANC’s then secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, who had come to accept the memorandum on behalf of the ANC, unless he sat down when talking to them. This is what they had demanded from Habib when he arrived from Durban to address them. Students wanted those in power “to sit down” and “humble themselves” when speaking to them.
Mantashe had addressed the students without sitting down.
Zuma then announced that there would be no fee increment in 2016. The students had won a concession to one of their demands.
Task teams were established to look at how the universities and government could pay for this, and many meetings were held between vice-chancellors and Nzimande to map a way forward.
The vice-chancellors were panicking. They still maintained that running universities without increasing fees would collapse them. But Zuma had made the announcement and there was no turning back.
His announcement, however, did not mean an end to students’ problems. Although the issue of fees was the face of their struggle, there were other challenges in the background. They ranged — and still range — from a lack of student accommodation to historical debt, which prevented thousand of students from continuing with their studies, and the inefficiency of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) in disbursing funding.
Given all these unresolved problems, the scenes at some of the country’s universities this week were not a surprise. The calls made by students at Wits, the Durban University of Technology (DUT), the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the Mangosuthu University of Technology, the University of Johannesburg and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology were inevitable. Next week, more campuses are likely to join the protests.
This is not new. We have been here before. This is what happens when you don’t resolve an issue.
There are structural challenges in the sector that need practical and urgent intervention by the government for the country to move forwards. As former South African Students’ Congress president Ntuthuko Makhombothi said in 2015 during the national shutdown: “We are not opposed to studying; we are opposed to the unfair, harsh and unequal conditions under which we study.” It seems simple; students want to study but many cannot do so because they do not have money to pay their historical debt. Many also have no place to stay and the NSFAS has rejected their applications, even though they qualify for funding.
Universities, on the other hand, have their own unresolved problems. Going back to the 2015 protests, vice-chancellors have maintained that clearing the millions of rand of historical debt owed to universities is not an option because it would leave them bankrupt and they would have to shut down within months. Universities, vice-chancellors have said, rely heavily on fees to keep functioning because government subsidies have been declining.
With their money, universities have to balance all sorts of different demands, such as the ordering of academic material from abroad, keeping the lights on, paying salaries and all the other things that keep them working.
Both sides are backed into an increasingly desperate corner. Universities have the power — inasmuch as they can ignore students, or call in private security guards.
As we have repeatedly seen in the past, this does not work. That led to the death of Mlungisi Madonsela, the student who was shot and killed this week, allegedly by a security guard at the DUT.
Without students, universities would not exist. But without working universities, students cannot realise their potential.