At least 2,000 South African university students and supporters crowded into a Johannesburg city block Thursday to demand that the ruling ANC party deliver on its promise of free higher education.
The demonstration comes more than a week after students at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand launched protests over a proposed 10 percent tuition and fee hike. Protests over university costs have since spread across the country and forced no less than 14 institutions to temporarily close.
The demonstrations spurred university leaders to meet this week with Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande in an attempt to reach a compromise. The group came up with a proposal to cap increases at 6 percent -- an offer immediately rejected by student leaders, who say that at minimum, there should be no increase at all.
On Thursday, students took their grievances to what many said was the responsible party, gathering outside the African National Congress headquarters in central Johannesburg as local police watched from the sidelines. The ANC party has won every major South African election since the nation transitioned to democracy in 1994.
University of the Witwatersrand law student Tetelo Mashisi stood among the crowd, singing along to old ANC anthems which, in previous decades, were used to protest the oppressive apartheid system.
“They’re the people who need to listen to us,” she said, gesturing at ANC headquarters. “The vice chancellor has heard us, now it’s time for the government to hear us, for the president to address us, for the president to hear. Because it’s a national crisis and all the universities are going through it. Clearly there’s something wrong and that needs to be fixed.”
'Unilateral decision-making' welcomed
ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe, who attended Thursday’s protest but did not speak, said earlier in the day that the mounting protests were indeed a national crisis, but in a statement, he pointed the blame back at university management.
“We condemn what appears to be unilateral decision-making by some institutions to raise fees for the next academic year,” he said. “The ANC affirms its opposition to any exclusionary policies by institutions of higher learning; especially if those who bear the brunt of such marginalization children of the poor and the working class.”
But the party has also acknowledged it has not done enough to bankroll the nation’s universities. In recent years, as demand for university slots has grown, the schools have seen budget cuts nearly across the board. The South African government says it doesn't have the money to restore the funds.
Meeting with the president
Students and university management will meet Friday with President Jacob Zuma to further discuss the issue.
Meanwhile, student leaders say they will continue their protests, which have been punctuated with a call that, to many ANC leaders, will seem very familiar.
“Amandla!” student leaders yelled at the crowd on Thursday, drawing a rousing response: ”Awethu!”
The old slogan, long used by the ANC during apartheid-era protests, means “power to the people.”