Recently, I found myself doing quite a few double takes on my Facebook newsfeed. Here I was, scrolling through the clutter of status updates, what’s-her-name’s wedding photos, the practical joke that is the American elections, and other news stories from the many pages I follow, until I realized something was off! I didn’t click on news stories concerning South Africa because I either read it in the paper, or heard it on the radio. It was only when I realized that these stories were published by the Canadian and American news outlets on my feed, that I frantically scrolled back up. So it appears, the civil unrest in South Africa has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the world. The first major story I saw circulating (and heard on my favourite podcast, recorded in Oklahoma) concerned the black female students in Pretoria not being allowed to wear their natural hair out in high school. It made for interesting critiques and dialogues on race, and how apartheid-era tactics were still operating throughout the country. Another story that flooded my twitter feed was South Africa’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, to which many nations responded with censure. But the story that has carried the most weight on the international stage is neither of these; instead, it’s a story concerning SDG 4 (ensuring equitable and inclusive quality education, promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all).
I am of course talking about fees must fall, the ongoing struggle between students, public universities and the government of South Africa. Fees must fall started over a year ago as a rallying against proposed national tuition increases in public universities. Recently, the focus has shifted from stopping fee hikes to gaining free, decolonized higher education. There has been much controversy surrounding the fees must fall protests, resulting in the underlying goal of the cause going unnoticed. Since September, the South African media has bombarded the public with images of protesters throwing rocks and bottles, burning down university buildings and vehicles, while police guiltlessly march in impressive formation. The imagery portrayed by the media has given the campaign a bad rep; many receiving the message with much disapproval and contempt. The more the demonstrations intensify, the more the idea of fees must fall championing equitable and inclusive education is disregarded altogether.
At face value, fees must fall sounds like an unreasonable plea, but looking at the legacy apartheid has left behind for black education in South Africa, reparations in the form of education really don’t seem so bizarre. The more I read about fees must fall; the more I was reminded that SDG 4 concerns both developing and developed countries. Story time: when I attended the University of Toronto some years ago, there were [also] protests underway concerning university fees in Ontario. The opposing campaign was called stop flat fees, combatting an initiative put forth by the University of Toronto (the largest university in Canada), that later influenced 16 of the province’s 20 universities to follow suit. The new proposal applied a fixed tuition fee for enrolment in a minimum number of courses in a particular program or faculty, rather than charging tuition fees for each individual course a student took. For the students who didn’t (or couldn’t) take a full course load, the flat fee introduction was an enormous financial burden. Flat fees also forced students to rush through their studies, even though most learn more effectively at a self-determined pace. By 2010, Ontario students were paying the highest tuition in the country, and for this the stop flat fees campaign gained much momentum.
Student protests culminated and a lawsuit was launched in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, challenging the integrity of the decision making process behind introducing flat fees. The protesting was peaceful, and asked that the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities prohibit the institutional practice of charging flat fees at colleges and universities for any threshold below 100 percent of a full course load and that they input regulations against universities implementing fee structures that side-step provincial tuition (UTSU, 2009). Flat fees were introduced in 2009, and although it took the Ontario government 4 years to respond, they did come up with a solution in 2013. The long anticipated policy requiring universities to charge students on a per-credit basis (for a threshold of an 80% course load or less) rather than charging a flat fee rate (for full time studies) finally came. It took protesting, lobbying, lawsuits, positive media coverage and the combined efforts of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance and the UofT Students Union to make this happen (Dehaas, 2013).
The situation in Canada involved disputing a new regulation that would stifle many students from having an inclusive, equitable opportunity at education. Stop flat fees was therefore a reactive campaign. In South Africa, the situation has been precarious because it has gone from being reactive (reacting to fee hikes) to being proactive, demanding free public university tuition for all. Some say the protests are random and chaotic, while others say they are highly organized. Some say they are peaceful demonstrations, while others say they are violent and destructive. When comparing both campaigns, it would be easy for me to say that it all worked out in Canada because we went about it the “proper” way… we protested peacefully, we got organized and filed a suit, we had prominent alliances and bla bla bla bla bla. I won’t go on because the “who wore it better” line of thinking does a great injustice to the students who are affected by fees must fall, and the students who are risking their safety to ultimately fight for equitable and inclusive quality education, with lifelong learning opportunities for all South Africans wishing to pursue higher education.
Though many prefer the Canadian model to the South African one, I will say this: One cannot simply compare the way a nation in the Global North goes about resolving an issue to a Nation in the Global South. Present day Canada does not suffer from extreme violence, is not recovering from the legal segregation laws that stripped millions of their basic human rights, and does not have a corrupt, obscure government in office that was recently tried with over 783 charges of corruption (Blair, 2016). Though the University students of South Africa are ultimately fighting for SDG 4 like we have in Ontario, our challenges and solutions are by no means the same. I’ve heard many well-to-do South Africans share their strong opinions on fees must fall, and how they think these students are barbaric and contradicting in their campaigning for free public university. The majority of these opinions came from people who weren’t affected by the Bantu Education Act of 1953, and who were born into the privilege allotted to them by the apartheid regime, therefore being able to afford required school fees of primary and high school education. Coming from a place that would generally agree with their line of thinking… yet living in South Africa and working in a Bantu School, I respectfully disagree with anyone who is of that opinion, or anyone who shames this powerful movement.
UTSU (2009). “A Case Against Flat Fees”. <www.utsu.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/stop_flat_fees_booklet_final_web.pdf
Blair, David (2016). “Jacob Zume ‘should’ face 783 charges, declares South African Court”. The Telegraph. <www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/04/29/south-african-court-declairs-way-for-jacob-zuma-to-face-783-crimin/
Dehaas, Josh (2013). “’Flat fees’ change and ‘deferral fees’ are done”. Macleans. <www.macleans.ca/education/uniandcollege/ontario-introduces-new-tuition-rules>.