[ACNS, by Gavin Drake] The Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, has appealed for calm after violent protests gripped universities across South Africa. After a major series of protests last year, students are once again protesting against course fees. The latest discord came after education minister Blade Nzimande said that tuition fees will rise by eight per cent next year – even though students from low- and middle-income families will be exempt from the rise.
Students argue that the continuing effects of the former Apartheid regime means that black families tend to be historically poorer than their white neighbours. Black students are dissuaded from attending university because of the high fees – with the effect that it perpetuates poverty and lower educational attainment.
In making the announcement of next year’s fee increase, Mr Nzimande said that poorer students receiving support from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme would be exempt; as would students from middle-income families where the annual income is less than R600,000 ZAR (approximately £33,800 GBP). It has been estimated that some 70 per cent of undergraduates will be exempt from the fee increase.
A proposed fee increase for 2016 was cancelled after earlier protests; but higher educational institutions said their academic programmes would be damaged by a further freeze. But the announcement that fees next year will rise by up to eight per cent – above the country’s inflation rate of six per cent – has incensed students. A number of university buildings have been torched; including the law library at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and security offices at the University of Fort Hare.
“The burning of schools, libraries, and institutions of higher learning sets us back from progressing as a nation,” Archbishop Makgoba said. “It is in these schools, libraries and institutions where people’s lives have been transformed.”
Archbishop Makgoba said that he was “deeply pained” by the instability in the higher education sector, and said: “Our universities, colleges and schools are important heritage sites for our communities. They preserve the history and the knowledge and the deeds of the leaders of yesterday, and serve in the education and growth of the leaders of tomorrow.
“It is this dream for the future leaders of this great country that we must protect.”
He added: “We should not forget the role played by some of these institutions during apartheid to contribute to the freedom we enjoy today. These institutions have not only moulded current leaders and those before us, but have transformed the lives of children and families who come from the dusty streets of rural Limpopo or those who come from Langa, Mitchells Plain, Manenberg and other townships and rural areas around the country.”
He said that the country’s Fees Commission – set up in response to last year’s protests – should be given “space to do its work” and he said that the introduction of a “new funding model” for next year would assist what he called the “missing middle.”
“We must protect our students’ right to learn in a conducive and enabling environment,” he said. “As we need to respect students’ right to peacefully protest we must also respect students’ right to peacefully continue the academic programme without interruptions and intimidation.”
He urged parents to take responsibility for their children; but recognised that “success in most struggles has always been in the hands of the young.”
He said: “With so much inequality and poverty in this country, let us refrain from deepening the divide through destructive actions. Violence and destructive action will not bring about the desired solutions.
“I am praying for our children at all the universities, that our convictions may prove to be greater than the challenges that confront us today.
“You have the opportunity to be part of something bigger than yourselves. When one day you reflect on this time, may the story you tell be one that fills you with pride. May it be a story that like the stories your parents told you of their fight for your right to equal education, makes future generations appreciate the opportunities we have that they never had. May your legacy not be one that destroys centres of learning, leaving nothing for posterity.”
Student leaders spent yesterday (Sunday) locked in a series of meetings across the country as they discussed ways of stepping up their campaign. South Africa media say that students are expected to target a high profile building this week as they take their protests to “a centre of power.”