Violence flared for several weeks this fall at university campuses in South Africa as students objected to proposed tuition increases of as much as 8%. The #FeesMustFall movement began in 2015 when the government proposed a similar fee increase, which was later rescinded. Although the demonstrations started to protest these tuition increases, students quickly switched to demanding free higher education.
The protests have disrupted deliveries to laboratories and canceled classes. Protesters have torched buildings and police have used stun grenades and rubber bullets to subdue demonstrators. Overall damage is estimated to be $50 million. After police crackdowns, campuses are quieter now and students are writing their final exams, but it’s unclear what will happen when a new academic year begins in February.
The roots of the movement lie in continued racial and economic inequality in the country, more than two decades after apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela was elected president in South Africa’s first election with universal suffrage. “The black middle class is bigger and better off, but on average, the gap between the rich and poor is bigger,” says Gert Kruger, a pharmaceutical sciences professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). More than 26% of the workforce is unemployed, and the government still struggles to provide basic necessities such as clean water, electricity, housing, and health care, as well as quality primary and secondary education. The African National Congress (ANC), which has ruled South Africa since apartheid ended, is now plagued by allegations of corruption.
“Most of our students were born after 1994,” the year Mandela took office, says Charles de Koning, a chemistry professor at the University of the Witwatersrand and the chair of the South Africa international chapter of the American Chemical Society. ACS publishes C&EN. “Society had high expectations of post-apartheid South Africa, including increased access to higher education. Progress toward this and other goals has been slow, and this has led to frustration that is being played out at the universities.”
University enrollment has roughly doubled to nearly 1 million since 1994. But racial inequalities persist: Black South Africans make up roughly 80% of the population, but only about 16% of black people ages 20 to 24 are enrolled in higher education. White people make up about 9% of the population, but 55% of white 20- to 24-year-olds enroll in university. The racial composition of university academic staff is about 34% black and 51% white.
The South African government does have a National Student Financial Aid Scheme to provide funding for poor students to attend universities. Edwin Mmutlane is the son of a mine laborer and a housewife, and he received both scholarship money and a loan through the program. He is now a senior lecturer in chemistry at the University of Johannesburg. “I would not be where I am today if it was not for this scheme,” Mmutlane says. But the program is underfunded and a “missing middle” class of students—children of people in professions such as teaching, nursing, and police work—often don’t qualify for aid and struggle to pay tuition, sources tell C&EN.
Meanwhile, neither government funding for universities nor faculty and staff hiring has increased proportionately with student enrollment. “It’s put a strain on the whole system,” Kruger says. At UKZN, “in chemistry, we now have something like 2,000 first-year undergraduates. I’m convinced that the overall quality of the degree has not decreased much, but to teach such large classes is a huge burden administratively.”
The protests themselves have not had huge effects on chemistry departments, however. Although classes were interrupted on some campuses, they did finish eventually.
As for research, graduate students and faculty were largely able to get to their labs and offices when they wanted. “Personally, I have been able to come to campus nearly every day, although I had to leave early” when protests were happening, says a chemistry graduate student who asked to be identified only by her first name, Memory. “Our main problem was delivery of chemicals or services—we didn’t have any chemicals delivery during the protests.”
The fallout from the protests, however, has strained funding. When tuition increases were rescinded last year, the government made up only some of the shortfall. Campuses had to absorb the rest. “We wanted to get a new mass spectrometer,” de Koning says. “We have a program called the national equipment program that provides two-thirds of funding for major equipment. The university did come up with its one-third share, but it was quite a struggle.”
What happens from this point is an open question. In January, current South Africa President Jacob Zuma set up a commission to examine the feasibility of eliminating university fees. The commission’s report is currently expected in June of 2017.
People who spoke with C&EN were skeptical that fee-free higher education is possible. “For a country like South Africa to have free university education now would be very destructive to the economy,” Memory says. “We should be doing more to stimulate the economy so that we have more people working, more middle-class people, and more disposable income. That will, in turn, reduce the burden on the government.” Others suggest that basic services and improved primary and secondary education perhaps should be tackled before university tuition.
“Why are universities being targeted?” asks Grant A. Farred, who grew up in South Africa and is now a professor of Africana studies at Cornell University. “The black working poor have been served badly by the ANC. Why are people not mobilizing against all of the inequities produced by a government that is corrupt, nepotistic, and primarily responsible for the failure to deliver services to black areas?”
UPDATE: This story was originally published with the headline “Chemists at South African universities endure campus violence as part of #FeesMustFall.”