JOHANNESBURG: Weeks of protests at South African universities have targeted tuition fees — but students say they are also about racism and inequality in a society still plagued by the legacy of apartheid.
The demonstrations have tapped into deep problems in the country, where many black people are unable to get decent education, jobs or housing despite white minority rule ending more than 20 years ago.
At a meeting at the prestigious Wits University in Johannesburg last week, Mcebo Dlamini, one of the student leaders, was greeted with thunderous applause when he tackled the touchstone subject of race.
“We are eager to restore the dignity of black children,” he told the audience of about 1,000, which included only a handful of white people.
“We want a free and decolorized education. We are not equal in this university,” he said.
Over the last three weeks, campuses across South Africa have been gripped by the protests against tuition fees, which could rise by up to eight percent next year.
The protesters have demanded free education, saying that poorer black students are being denied access to universities and good careers.
With several universities forced to close for weeks, the demonstrations have often developed into violent running battles as students hurl rocks, and police fire rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades.
“Free education is a way to achieve equality, to repair what people had to go through in the past,” Tauriq, a student protester, told AFP.
“They (white people) don’t understand what it feels like to be in a mall and stand in a corner, and people assume you are going to steal.”
The African National Congress (ANC) government has vowed to provide further financial help for all students from poor backgrounds, and said its aim is to provide free university education in the long term.
But it has also warned that public funds are desperately needed elsewhere, and has condemned students who have forced campuses to shut down or been involved in violence.
The government has set up a commission to investigate funding of higher education, but South Africa’s campuses look set for further turmoil before it delivers recommendations sometime next year.