President Zuma responds to student protests

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Following mass protests by students across South Africa, President Jacob Zuma has moved to freeze tuition fees. However, this strategy is unlikely to pacify students or to enable the ruling party to win back the confidence of urban voters. The future success of the ANC will therefore depend on recalibrating its support base away from urban areas and towards rural locales.

The student protests began after it was announced that universities planned to increase their fees by around 11.5% next year. Demonstrations that began at the University of the Witwatersrand on Johannesburg quickly spread, trending under the #feesmustfall hashtag and tapping into deeper concerns about the lack of racial transformation in the distribution of power in key institutions, despite the end of apartheid. The first phase of the protest movement and culminated in a mass protest at the Union Buildings, the seat of the South African government in Pretoria, when over 10,000 people demanded that the fee increases should be scrapped.

President Zuma initially offered to cap fee increases at 6%, a significant reduction from the 10-12% that was initially quoted, but a long way from the “free education” now demanded by some students. When this offer failed to move student leaders, the present went a step further, agreeing to freeze tuition fees on 23 October. However, the move left the ANC in something of a bind, as the government was forced to admit that it did not know how it was going to fund the resulting hole in the budget.

It is also unclear whether the ANC has a broader plan for dealing with university education, or if the ruling party is simply hoping that if it freezes fees this year universities will be able to implement the increases at a later date. After meeting university officials and student representatives, Zuma admitted that more far reaching reform would be required, but was rather vague on exactly what this would involve: “In the long term, there is a package of issues that was raised at the meeting that needs to be followed up – these include free education, institutional autonomy [and] racism.”

In reality, the problems facing the university sector are structural and cannot be resolved overnight. Although the government spends more on education than any other single budget item, the proportion of revenue accruing to higher education is relatively small, and in 2012/2013 amounted to just 2.3% of total government spending, or 0.76% of GDP. As a result, the proportion of university income provided by the government fell from 49% to 40% between 2000 and 2012. In the absence of a large increase in private income, universities have made up this shortfall by increasing student fees, which now make up 31% of total university revenue, up from 24% in 2000.

These trends have placed universities and students under greater financial pressure. At the same time, growing student numbers has placed the entire system under intense strain. A university sector that was educating 600,000 in 2001/2002 is now educating over 1 million South Africans. Thus, although the total amount of money the government spends on tertiary education has gone up, the funding per student has gone down. One consequence of this increase in student numbers is that at the same time that students are being asked to pay more, many are finding the experience of going to university disappointing and unfulfilling.

Resolving these challenges will take far more time and resources than President Zuma has so far proved willing to invest. The president also faces a number of other associated challenges. The student’s victory has emboldened their leaders to campaign for free education. This is something that South Africa would struggle to afford, and is a demand that is likely to go unfulfilled, adding to the sense of disillusionment felt by some of the ANC’s fiercest critics.

The longer-term implications of the mounting urban frustration with the president could be far-reaching. Zuma’s refusal to publicly address rallies and protests has led to accusations that he is out of touch with ordinary South Africans. Moreover, this point is being made in increasingly strident language. A student that attended the Union Buildings protest is reported to have said: “Now we know Zuma is a coward. He’s not a man.” Comments such as these a broader concern South Africa’s towns and cities with the direction in which the country appears to be heading: low economic growth, rising corruption, and an absence of clear leadership on big issues.

As a result, the South African landscape is increasingly mirroring that of other African states such as Uganda and Zambia, in which governments gradually lost urban support and ultimately depended on rural votes to retain power. The challenge for President Zuma will be to expand the party’s control of rural areas at the same rate that it loses influence in urban ones.

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