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Student organizer Nompendulo Mkatshwa marched through the campus of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg on Wednesday. (Photo: AFP/Getty)

Student organizer Nompendulo Mkatshwa marched through the campus of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg on Wednesday. (Photo: AFP/Getty)

'Mass Struggle Works': South African Student Uprising Wins Tuition Hike Freeze

'A famous victory won by the hard struggle of students. We are all humbled.'

Sarah Lazare

Facing the largest student uprisings since South Africans toppled apartheid, President Jacob Zuma pledged Friday to halt tuition fee increases in the year 2016—prompting declarations of victory, as well as calls to continue the mass mobilizations until free education is won for all.

"A famous victory won by the hard struggle of students. We are all humbled," Salim Vally, associate professor of education and director of the Center for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg, told Common Dreams. "The determination and resoluteness of the students forced the hand of government. This was clear to many even before the sun rose this morning."

"Many lessons learned and an incredibly important educational experience for us all," Vally continued. "Foremost of which is that unity and mass struggle works."

Following a meeting with student organizers and university management, Zuma announced to reporters: "On the matter at hand we agreed that there will be a zero increase of university fees in 2016."

The president's concessions were met with widespread celebration, but not all expressed satisfaction. "We should be having free education," said 18-year-old Bongani Shabangu, who is studying education at a Pretoria university, in an interview with The Irish Independent. "Most of us are from poor families."

And, when large crowds rallied outside the main government complexes in Pretoria on Friday to demand that Zuma address them directly, police forces pelted them with water cannons, stun grenades, and tear gas.

What's more, many are still furious at police brutality against protesters and are calling for the government to drop steep charges levied against dozens of demonstrators who were detained.

Patrick Bond, professor of Political Economy at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, told Common Dreams that students have won a "historic victory over South African neoliberalism."

However, he continued: "Other student demands remain outstanding: free tertiary education for poor and working people as the overall goal, and an end to labor casualization and outsourcing for low-paid university workers. Many such workers barely receive $100/month, and with a poverty line of $60/person/month, raising a family on starvation wages is impossible."

Sparked by tuition hikes of up to 11.5 percent at numerous universities, weeks of student protests have swept at least 18 campuses and shut down the country's top universities. Many are calling for free education, in a society beset with deep inequities. "The current system continues to exclude most black South Africans and other historically disadvantaged groups," anthropologist Vito Laterza explained at the blog Africa is a Country.

As thousands rallied Thursday at the ruling ANC's headquarters in Johannesburg, student leader Mcebo Dlamini declared: "The ANC government will never give us free education. We must take it." Students' speeches at the demonstration are captured in the video below.

The protests follow the ongoing Rhodes Must Fall movement of "students and staff members mobilizing for direct action against the reality of institutional racism at the University of Cape Town"—which is working towards the long-term goal of decolonizing higher education. Their demands include the implementation of "a curriculum which critically centers Africa and the subaltern" and the removal of "all statues and plaques on campus celebrating white supremacists."

According to Bond, the mass protests that brought Friday's concessions constitute a "boost to anti-austerity activism" that is especially relevant given a series of punishing reforms advocated by Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene.

"A victory has been won but the battle for free quality public education from pre-primary to higher education continues," Vally said. "The market orientation of higher education remains, and it reproduces and reflects the inequalities of the wider society. This includes privatization, outsourcing, competitiveness, user-fees, racism, patriarchy and managerialism."

Vally added: "We now have the beginning of a new movement increasingly steeled in struggle."


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