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#Feesmustfall: SA Coming to Grips with Neo-liberalism, Inequality& Corruption

By Pride Mkono

As the South African parliament sat to hear the fiscal policy update from Hon. Minister of Finance Nhlanhla Nene, thousands of irate students besieged the streets outside parliament. Students sang, danced and sloganeered, all for one seemingly simple demand but one which is fast becoming elusive in South Africa as much as the rest of the continent. The right to education!

To show the gravity of the situation south of the Limpopo, police reacted with brute force and some students were injured and others arrested and could be facing treason charges. At political level the State President, Jacob Zuma, has accepted that the situation is degenerating into a crisis and will be meeting student leaders on Friday, 23 October 2015.

The students’ march on the parliament of South Africa was a culmination of a series of protests which started at Wits University before spreading to other universities across that vast Southern African country. The students’ bone of contention is the proposed 6% increment is tuition fees which institutions of higher learning proposed as a way of covering for operating costs in the wake of reduced government funding targeting the higher education sector but there is need to look at the causes behind this on-going upheaval.

SA’s Neo-Liberal Onslaught

The fees hike is just a ‘Sarajevo incident’ in the cocktail of problems facing most low to middle income households. Because of large scale privatization of social services by the South African government since the turn of the new century, most families cannot afford the increased costs of education.

Social services such as water and electricity have been privatized under the regime of pre-paid and smart meters whereby the user is required to purchase given quantities of the amounts they wish to use in advance. This method of paymentdisenfranchise the poor from accessing services and means that if household do not have cash when they run out of power or water they have to survive without these bare necessities, hence most households have to stretch their incomes just to go by. A fee increment therefore is clearly beyond the rich of many.

The African National Congress (ANC) government has also alleged that the state’s finances are not in good order to be able to continue subsidizing public services and thus it has been pursuing austerity measures. One of the targets of austerity has been the higher education sector which has seen successive budgetary support cuts which has forced institutions to raise fees as a way of raising money to cover for the deficits.
Rampant Economic Inequality

In addition to the broad neo-liberal pursuit of the ANC government, economic and social inequality remains disturbingly high. The majority of the black population, estimated at 12 million, in South Africa continues to wallow in extreme poverty while a white minority continues to enjoy the larger share of the national cake.

Blacks find themselves ensnared in poverty within their ghettos such as Soweto, Alexandra, Khayelitsha and many others while the whites and their new found petty bourgeoisie black elites live large in well to do suburbs epitomized by suburbs such as Sandton.

When South Africa gained its freedom the bulk of the ordinary citizenry had hoped that the new ‘rainbow nation’ would be able to redress past imbalances and begin programmes to alleviate poverty and close the social inequality gap. However, this ‘promissory note’ of 1994 has not been cashed more than 2 decades later. This is besides the fact that the constitution of South Africa has socio-economic rights entrenched within it.

The majority of black South Africans are still limited to menial employment often in the mines, construction and farming sectors where they are underpaid and blatantly abused by corporate bosses, who are often white. A large number of young South African professionals are still paid lower salaries than their white counterparts in some sections of the industries.
Within universities and colleges, seething inequality is evident as black professors are also paid lower than their white counterparts.

Students are not spared either in one form of discrimination or the other, and the bulk of them rightly feel that a fees hike is meant to keep them out of school and thus perpetuate their subordinateand impoverished role to white South Africans.
Corruption Scourge

In all these huge structural challenges, the South African ruling elite of the ANC has exacerbated the situation. The ANC is now widely seen as a neo-liberal and petty bourgeoisie establishment which thrives on corruption and survives through an extensive patronage system which is financed by big capital.

ANC leaders from its very President, Jacob Zuma, have been rocked by scandal after scandal. Talk of the GuptasWaterkloof Air Force base plane scam which involved the Guptas, a family which is close to President Zuma.Then there is the involvement of Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa, in the Marikana saga which led to the cold blood massacre of 46 miners who were protesting for a salary increment.

At the top of the scandals is perhaps PresidentZuma’s Nkandla homestead constructions which cost the nation a whopping R65 million. The Public Protector then released a damning report on the issue which concluded that part of the money must be paid back and up to now the President appears to be unmoved and unwilling to act on the matter
Now #Feesmustfall

It is against this grim background that students in South Africa find themselves coming from the poor families of peasants and the working class and asked to pay so much in order to access education. Education remains the key to social mobility and an avenue to escaping poverty hence the students’ apprehension with an increment which seeks to deny them this opportunity and thus condemn them forever in the dungeons of poverty and inequality.

Indeed the messages which the students of South Africa are sending is a message that resonates with Africa’s challenges today and their brave action will most certainly inspire others across the subregion especially in Zimbabwe where this blogger hails from. There are also fundamental lessons to be learnt from the #Feesmustfall campaign and in the next post this blogger will take a look at these. For now all we can see is that peoplepower from below works and when it does those in power shake!

Pride Mkono is a former President of Zimbabwe National Students Union. He writes here on his own capacity and can be contacted at


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