Education Protests: A Minor Uproar in South Africa

Protests seem to be the only way to compel the corrupt government of South Africa under President Zuma to make progress. These protests, however, are not the peaceful Women’s March protests like we have witnessed in America. When there are not enough toilets in a South African Township, citizens resort to throwing poop at expensive cars on the road. When the education systems are too westernized, students resort to burning down their campus library. (Seems pretty contradictory if you ask me).

This last academic year came with a thrash of protests as the public college education system was forced to raise the school fees to keep up with costs. The tricky part? The poor students are very poor, and the rich students are very rich. To put the inequality in perspective, the Gini coefficient for South Africa is 63.38, one of the highest in the world. The United States stands at 41.06 and Mexico stands at 48.21. Battling for educational rights, students will sacrifice eating for a college education. In a country where the poverty rate is so vast, students who fall into poverty and make it to university are expected to support their whole family, feed them, and pay for college. Such expectations are unrealistic and take away from their studies, forcing many of them to have to protest to keep their education.

Protests In Stellenbosch threaten to close University: October 23rd, 2015. Courtesy of reuters/MIke Hutchens. 

  Figure 1

Tuition is high for those that fall in the middle and lower income range and because of the informality of the country, there are not proper finance structures so South African students don’t have easy access to loans, financial aid and scholarship like students in the United States do. A mother working in domestic services would earn about 1500 rand a month. The cost of University can be anywhere between 20,000 rand, or 60,000 rand for the highest level of University education. The earnings of parents in low to middle paying jobs does not sufficiently help pay for tertiary education. In 2011, roughly 45% of the population lived on less than 650 rand a month, or in other terms, below the poverty line.

The academic school year of 2016 began with university students across South Africa interrupting classes, burning school buses, and demanding lower tuition costs less for those that cannot afford it. All students were unsafe at school and several universities shut down including the University of Cape Town, the highest regarded University on the African Continent. Unable to graduate, the next wave of college-educated employees did not have a diploma in hand.

A student from the University of Cape Town, Kyle Manuel of Cape Town, was frustrated in the government’s lack of caring. He said, “There’s definitely no real leadership, since the Zuma regime, politicians have become so obsessed with smearing each others’ names that they’ve become less concerned with the needs of people, especially elderly people and those under the taxable income range.”

The irony is that Zuma’s estate in Cape Town is just two miles from the University property, yet he manages to keeps himself so protected and uninvolved from his angered population. Thus, students across South Africa started the movement #feesmustfall.

When asked about the economic inequality that fueled the #feesmustfall protests, Professor Joe Warren who used to teach cultural studies at Stellenbosch University claimed, ”Training and education policies have failed them.” He believes the issue stems from the government’s lack of healing the repercussions of the apartheid era. He says, “There were several bad decisions at all the levels from primary education all the way to tertiary that have set us back.”

Additionally, because South Africa was a Dutch colony, the education systems are very westernized both regarding teaching style and the usage of white western text. Students are also protesting because they are recognizing that having westernized education and being taught ideas that stem from european history, doesn’t always have its benefits in an African country. Black and Colored South Africans have become very aware of the role western education takes in an African country and have become sensitive to such issues since they were suppressed in the economic and social system for so long. Whites are a minority in South Africa but hold a majority of the wealth. De-westernizing the education systems would be beneficial for school children, as well as university students. Even today, white professors at UCT are still giving lectures about apartheid and the implications of it even though they never fell victim to it.  However, pulling westernized education practices from the education systems is very contradictory because by de-westernizing universities, South Africa could be set apart from the western world; one they never had control over entering into during imperialism. The concept has a lot of pros to it, like helping South Africa become self sufficient, but it also has a lot of cons to it, like keeping South Africa out of the western economic system, one that people argue is very economically strong.

Protests sign fighting to take colonized education out of University: April 21, 2015 Courtsey of The Daily Vox/Raeesa Pather.

Figure 2

South Africa is not the only country negatively affected by westernized education. In our changing world western nations are also impacted by the out-dated form of teaching. Between capitalism, growth of corporations, and lack of diverse education, inequality gaps are growing all over the world. Unfortunately, because of South Africa’s unstable post apartheid government and economy, the country is having several issues progressing into the developed world. Today, white professors are in the majority at all Universities in South Africa. From a recent study done on race of professors among 13 schools in South Africa, 71.4% are white, 9.8% are black, 6.6% are Indian and 3.1% are coloured. In perspective, whites make up 8.4% of the whole population in South Africa. Since white people controlled South Africa’s political and economic structures for so long, changing the demographics of the nation is a slow process. Additionally, the University structure for most classes revolve around text books and lectures. Universities also have “tuts” or tutorials where they meet with an assistant professor once a week to practice what they learn in the lecture and hand in completed work. This kind of education is not very engaging and creates a very competitive and non-integrative atmosphere which strays from the communal habits or ubuntu philosophy of several South African communities and persons.

Joe Warren said, “We need to rethink education, not only in SA, but the world. It needs to be less about accumulation and competition and more about creating active, engaged, ethical, and critically oriented individuals who can contribute in a variety of ways – while also making other forms of jobs more desirable at the same time.”

Protests outside Parliament in Cape Town emphasizing the inequality gap: October 26th 2016. Courtesy of The South Africa Business News/ Kierran Allen Photography

Figure 3

South Africa may in fact be at the forefront of addressing global education issues. Good schools can no longer continue raising fees in an economically unequal society. Western education is not the future to equality as there are several different kinds of educational interactions that can lead someone to be successful. Diversifying education systems may be the solution to global education systems, and South Africa is addressing these questions head on in the phase of an educational crisis.

For now, what’s the solution to South Africa’s closed Universities and rising tuition fees? Kyle Manuel says, “languages need to be looked at to build the nation up educationally since there are several native tongues in South Africa. This language barrier can improve not only general cohesion but also improve other sectors like business and medicine which are still largely English.”

While South Africa’s education systems are walking on a string to stay open, and protests continue violently, the country needs to come together with global education movements to find a sweet spot that will allow opportunity for citizens who are both rich and poor proceed towards the educational opportunities that are present, but inaccessible.



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This is the average salary in South Africa by race and industry