South Africa’s universities have faced protests and disruption, linked by a strong common thread. A place at a public university is now unaffordable for a large majority of potential students.
Last year saw a temporary fix and the government’s budget, tabled in Parliament in February, will extend these stop-gap measures. But until the financial causes are addressed, the crisis will continue to escalate, with significant long-term consequences.
Protests have taken different forms. At the University of the Western Cape, students joined forces with trade unions to protest about debt and low wages. At the University of the Free State, a rugby match erupted in violence as spectators attacked student demonstrators.
At Pretoria University, students clashed violently over the policy for the language of instruction, and a shortage of student housing at the University of Cape Town led to a bus and artworks being burned and raw sewage thrown into lecture rooms.
North-West University was closed after students from different political factions clashed.
These conflicts have been driven by a complex intersection of race and class, bringing to the surface issues that have remained unresolved over the 22 years since South Africa’s first democratic elections.
The common thread is inequality and its consequences for student funding. South Africa is now one of the most unequal countries in the world and has a high and growing level of unemployment.
Average household income is about R75,000 a year (roughly £3,500), and about 70% of South Africans qualify for free state housing because they earn so little. Wealth, and the advantages in housing, healthcare and education that come with it, is sharply concentrated in the top two deciles of the population.
These economic circumstances have a profound effect on access to higher education.