Hundreds of South African students marched on parliament today over a proposed rise in tuition fees, battling with police.
Outside the nation's parliament in Cape Town, students chanted "Fees must fall" and said they can't afford the proposed 10 to 12 percent fee increase, or any increase at all. Some said it would disproportionately affect black students from less wealthy backgrounds. Outside parliament, police were seen using tear gas and stun grenades against protesters.
"We were pushed back by police with force. The stun grenade was shot right next to my ear. I still have the buzzing in my ear," Motheo Lengoasa, a student at the University of Cape Town, told Reuters.
"We have an obligation to maintain law and order. Every person has the right to demonstrate and protest. But of course there are limitations. We cannot allow for unruliness, for intimidation or any form of criminality to take place," police spokesman Vish Naidoo told the BBC, defending the measures.
But protesters on the scene said the use of tear gas and stun grenades was uncalled for, and that they'd entered the gates of parliament peacefully:
Across the country, students from all backgrounds have been rallying against the government proposal over the last couple of weeks, and has brought some universities to a standstill as students boycott classes. They've been expressing their frustrations online with the tag #feesmustfall and #NationalShutDown:
South African President Jacob Zuma first warned students two weeks ago against violence during protests before saying earlier this week that he sympathized with them. He hasn't commented on today's protests so far.
Zuma did set up a parliamentary team to consider the fee rises and students' wider concerns about being able to afford and access a college education. At South Africa's top universities, one year of undergraduate studies can cost between $2,200 and $4,400. That might not sound like much, but household income in South Africa is generally much lower than it is in the U.S., which makes these costs significant for the average South African student.
According to a 2013 estimate, the vast majority of South African households–96% of them–earn less than 37,000 dollars per year. There is a government loan program, the National Students Financial Aid Scheme, available to help students through college–but the NSFAS head has said that students are struggling to pay back their loans when they take them.
Some universities have argued that fees need to rise because government funding has not kept pace with the rising cost of keeping their institutions running. South Africa has both private and public universities, with public universities operating on a combination of government funding and student fees. The most recent data from the World Bank (from 2012) tells us that around 20% of South Africans go to college. In 2012, the government said they were aiming to increase that number to 23% by 2030.
Many students are angry with what they see as an abandonment by the African National Congress, Zuma's party. Despite some wings of the party publicly supporting the students, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande said just yesterday that he didn't think this was a crisis. “Yes, it is a challenge, but I wouldn’t call it a crisis because we have ways and means of discussing the matter,” Nzimande told reporters in Pretoria yesterday.
The ANC said they will hold a press conference tomorrow, after meeting with student leaders.
These protests come after the Open Stellenbosch movement took off last month, with black students saying they are excluded during college classes by the use of Afrikaans as the main language of instruction in many universities.