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There is a long history of student activism in South Africa. Students were part of the fight against apartheid. For many years, students have protested against the university fees, which prevent students from working class families from attending university. For example, the fees for a year at the University of Cape Town (UCT) are around R100 000. If a worker is earning the minimum wage they only make around R40 000 a year. There is no way that a worker can afford to send their children to university when the fees are so high. As a result, at universities with many students from working class families, there has a long history of struggle against university fees.

By Ronnie Pule

In October 2015, this struggle spread to wealthy universities like UCT and Wits. Students and workers together in struggle closed universities across the country for nearly a month, demanding free, decolonised education. They also demanded that workers be directly employed by the public universities they are working at, rather than by private companies. This demand was won at some universities, but the demand of free education was not met. The state reacted by bringing police and private security onto campuses to arrest students and repress the protests. After a month, the momentum of the protests was lost.

Students continued to take forward the struggle for free education by striking at the end of the year, during exams, when it is possible to put the most pressure on university managements. But there was a failure to build on the country-wide protests of 2015. Workers became less and less involved and worker demands were less and less part of the protests. In 2016, there were substantial student protests, but still the demand of free education was not met. Again, the state reacted by repressing the protests. Many students were arrested.

In 2017, the protests further lost momentum. Only 3 universities out of the 26 in the country had any protests. On the one hand, the state acted strongly to repress these protests. On the other, with the elections for the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) coming up, President Jacob Zuma announced the introduction of “free education”. At a time when the movement was at its weakest, and while the police were still arresting students, Zuma said that the students had convinced him to introduce “free education”. In reality, he wanted to appear militant to increase his chances of being elected president of the ANC, the ruling party of South Africa.

The “free education” that Zuma introduced is not really free education. The student loan system was changed to a grant to students from families earning below R350 000 a year. The education still had to be paid for, the state is just paying for it instead of the student.

Now we are seeing the problems of Zuma’s “free education”. Students who owe the university money are not being allowed to register for classes until they pay their debts. The grant system is supporting many students and is badly run, meaning that many students have not received their grants. This has left them without accommodation, and without the allowances they need for food, transport, books and other necessities.

There have been protests at three universities. Again, the government of “free education” has repressed the protests. At Wits, students interrupted classes for a day, and have subsequently gone on hunger strike, demanding that the university management engages with them on their demands. At the Durban University of Technology (DUT), students clashed with police and private security. On Tuesday, a student was shot dead by private security. Students are demanding that those owing the university money be allowed to register for classes, and that university managements address the various other issues facing students, including the lack of accommodation.

Students need to demand real free education. When the education still needs to be paid for, by the state or by the student, it will always be possible to make sure that education is only for the rich. Students need to demand a living wage for all workers. Education cannot be built on the exploitation of workers. Education is part of the public sector. And the public sector cannot be a place for bosses to make profits. The public sector should provide for the needs of the working class.

Taking forward worker demands such as that of a living wage should mean students working with worker organisations on campus. It should mean a revival of the student-worker alliance which was so strong in 2015. When workers go on strike they can close entire universities. They can close entire economies. Workers have the power to make history- to make the impossible, possible. This power is needed in the struggle for free education.

To take the struggle for real free education forward, the protests that are happening in Durban and Johannesburg need to spread to other campuses. Students and workers need to speak to each other about the struggle for free education, and decide how to take it forward. For this plan to be put into action across the country, there needs to be a national meeting of all students and workers struggling for free education.

At all campuses across the country, students and workers need to organise meetings to discuss the struggle for free education, and elect representatives to go to a national meeting of students from every campuses. These representatives should carry the mandate of their university to the meeting. At this meeting comrades will be able to develop a plan of action to take forward the struggle for free education across the whole country.