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  November 3, 2015

South African Students Demand Free University Education While Building a Broad Front (1/2)

Vishwas Satgar of The University of the Witwatersrand says peaceful and deciplined student protests over several weeks have brought about a concession from the ANC on tuition fees, yet the demands for labor rights on campus remain unmet
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Vishwas Satgar has been a grass roots activist in South Africa for the past 28 years. He is currently engaged in supporting the Solidarity Economy Movement in township communities, supporting food sovereignty campaigning , climate jobs campaigning and defending popular democracy in South Africa. His academic interests include a focus on African political economy, Empire and Global crisis, Green Global political Economy and Transnational Alternatives. He is a Senior Lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand. His latest book is COSATU in Crisis.


SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

In South Africa weeks of student protests against the ANC government's plan to raise university tuition fees has resulted in a victory for students. But not before South African riot police fired stun grenades, rubber bullets, and tear gas at the protesting students. Let's have a look at the size of the student protest we are talking about.

[Video of student protest]

PERIES: The ANC, particularly President Zuma, responded by announcing a moratorium on the tuition hikes rather swiftly after they saw the number of protesters across several campuses and at government buildings. Let's have a look.

PRESIDENT JACOB ZUMA: On the matter at hand, we agreed that there will be a zero increase of university fees in 2016.

PERIES: Now joining me to discuss all of this discontent on college campuses is Dr. Vishwas Satgar. He teaches at the University of Wits in Johannesburg, which has been the epicenter of the student protest. He's the author of many books, and the latest among them is Cosatu in Crisis, which he edited with Roger Southall.

Vishwas, it's so wonderful to have you on. Thank you for joining us today.

VISHWAS SATGAR: Thank you for having me.

PERIES: So in spite of all of this victory and the announcement of President Zuma, the gathering and organizing demands continue. What is the nature of the demands of the students?

SATGAR: The rallying call has been for free education. And the hashtag #FeesMustFall has been on social media a rallying point of reference, but also in street politics. It's found great traction across most of our universities in the country.

I mean, if you were to kind of think backwards from what happens on October 23, this great student surge in front of the union buildings, you basically see a buildup that happens over a two-week period. On October 14, Wits is very peacefully occupied by students at all key entrances and exits in the wake of an announcement by the university that they are increasing fees to just over 10 percent for next year. This peaceful action literally brings the institution to a standstill. It reverberates and it resonates, and by Monday the 19, across most of our university campuses, students are rallying behind the call for free education and for fees to fall.

This gains further momentum as students peacefully occupy our parliamentary buildings on Wednesday the 21st. And this again catches national attention, it arouses national interest and support. And students are basically in a situation where police are in a standoff with them at parliament, and all they're wanting to do is voice and articulate their demands. The country witnesses, on national TV, through national radio broadcasts, again police trying to keep students out of the parliamentary space. They force the minister of higher education to come to the fore, and he very meekly gestures towards a 6 percent reduction. This further, if you like, intensifies and angers students, and a march is held to Luthuli House, which is the headquarters of the ANC, the following day. And thousands of students gather outside of Luthuli House, peaceful, disciplined. And again, giving voice to their demand, particularly around free education.

But I should also add, the issue of [insourcing] of workers also began to percolate and come to the fore more and more in student articulation and demands.

PERIES: How does the outsourcing manifest itself on campus?

SATGAR: Well, basically it's a cost-cutting or cost-reduction measure. And at least since '99, 1999 at the University of Witwatersrand, this has been an attempt by the university to push out, if you like, non-academic staff at the university. So cleaners, electricians, gardeners in the university, and so on. And this has meant that they have been brought back into the university through labor brokers. Most of them earn about 1,500 rands a month. That's even way below a living wage. Or a minimum wage, for that matter.

Outsourcing became a strategy by the university to manage costs downward. And essentially workers lost a whole host of non-wage benefits, for medical aid benefits, pension benefits, and including the benefit of ensuring their children could be students free of charge at the university. So a lot of these workers were brought back into the university through, if you like, labor brokers, and were paid and have been paid appalling wages that are even way below our minimum living level. Most of them earn about 1,500 a month, which is really insufficient by any standard.

And in this regard, the Student-Worker Alliance at Wits University has been gaining in strength and prominence for many, many years. And I want to suggest that one of the major factors that fed into the [inaud.] for movement at Wits and eventually reverberated nationally was a call by the Student-Worker Alliance under the banner of protesting on October 6 of this month, that passed. And that was a very, very important moment, because it galvanized the entire university community, progressive community, to come out in solidarity with outsourced workers. That also laid the basis, if you like, for a non-partisan unification and kind of common ground for even students. And eventually this translates into the Fees Must Fall call, particularly after our management asserts this issue before the 14th of October.

PERIES: Now, Vishwas, I understand that one of the demands the students are making is completely free education for the poor. What are the fees like at the moment, and who is barred access in terms of the cost-prohibitive nature of higher education?

SATGAR: Well, basically, South Africa has a pretty developed university system. And I would argue once upon a time it was a public university system. But since 1994, since the ANC took power, the university system has also had to bear the brunt of a neoliberalized and, if you like, a financialized economic framework. In that context, what has been happening is that subsidies to universities have been cut back consistently. And we are actually sitting at a situation where per head, students get, or the university, gets about 16,000-17,000 rand per student from the national government.

Now, student population and student numbers have been going up dramatically also since 1994. we are now sitting at just close to a million students. For South Africa that is big, for its university system of about 26 universities. And there's a major shortfall that universities face. There are three sources of funding in the main for universities. The one is the government subsidy. And increasingly with the cuts and subsidy cuts from government, that has been shrinking. And for most universities it's probably about 30 percent of the, if you like, financial formula.

The other source of funds has been student fees. And student fees has been progressively going up as the costs of education have been going up. And today you're probably averaging about 50,000-60,000 rands per annum at a university, which includes tuition, which includes accommodation, and so on. And these costs could even be way more than that when you factor in transport and a whole lot of other things. And basically the fee increase was coming on the back of already high fees, of between 30,000-40,000. And this would have pushed things up even more. It was a breaking point, if you like.

The other source of funding has been sort of donor support, if you like, or third stream funding. And this has really been from foundations and philanthropies, et cetera, for particular kinds of projects, vanity projects, building big buildings and things like that at universities. With the general thrust, the fiscal squeeze on universities, universities have had to constantly try and survive. Those that have not had, had reserves, and you know, there are few universities that have, if you like, that are well-endowed in South Africa. These are previously old Afrikaner universities, like the University of Pretoria or the University of Johannesburg, or Stellenbosch. They are well-endowed universities, and they have reserves and they have buffers, et cetera. And they've made good investments.

But most universities, like my own Wits University, has had to find its way through these constraints. And I think in the end in October this year, it all came to a head with an announcement of a 10 percent fee increase.

PERIES: Right. Vishwas, let's continue this discussion. Because beyond the moratorium on fees, the student movement seems to have a great deal of contention with the ANC policies as well, in a broader way. And beyond the university, as well. Let's take that up in our next segment.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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