#FeesMustFall: Campaigning for Free Education

By Ashley Fataar

Since the middle of October 2015 students at universities across South Africa have been protesting over three issues. Beginning at Wits University in Johannesburg, the protest spread 5 days later to the University of Cape Town. By the end of the month universities across the country were witnessing protests unprecedented since the fall of racial apartheid in 1994.

Students across the length and breadth of the country rose up against fee hikes that would have made higher education prohibitively expensive and forced tens of thousands of them out of the system, joining the millions who are already locked out because of the cost of fees and the difficulty of sustaining themselves through their degrees.

Although the protest movement involved predominantly black students, white students also took part – the economic situation, low growth and job losses, is beginning to hit previously privileged groups as well. On many occasions black and white students linked arms in battles with the police.

As classes were cancelled, the activists organised teach-ins and made space to help their fellow students to study towards their final exams. The students cleaned up any mess created by their occupations: they knew that the burden would otherwise fall on low-paid campus cleaners who could, in the case of black students, be their own mothers and fathers.

Many students who enter South African universities are under-prepared by poor schools in working-class townships and rural areas. As a result they struggle to deal with course-work. Furthermore, working class students have to work part-time to make ends meet. Having to deal with demanding courses between work-shifts means impaired concentration and focus which results in frustration, stress and at times academic failure.

There is a system of financial aid available. But it only provides loans or bursaries to people whose families earn below a certain income level. It means that many students who face severe difficulties are not helped.

After weeks of sustained protests across the country students won the demand that university fees would not be increased in 2016.But two important demands still remain – the demand for free quality education and the demand for an end to the hated practice of outsourcing non-academic labour, who clean, provide security and maintenance at colleges and universities.

University education has become a very difficult target for thousands of students. As a teacher in Bishop Lavis, a working class area in Cape Town, explained in October, ‘I was having a discussion with my students last week when the Wits students began protesting. They argued that even if they pass matric they can’t afford the costs associated with university or tertiary education. They argued that they were only being educated to work as till operators in super-markets or to join criminal gangs. They questioned why they should, therefore, bother with writing final high school exams.’

They are right. Winning zero percentage fee increase for 2016 does not address the issue the issue of student debt. Universities will only award a degree if all fees are paid. Those who are fortunate to get loans have to pay them off. As many students argue, the demand that fees must fall is not only that fee increases must fall but that there must be no fees at all. Even with the cancellation of the increase students from poor families will still bear the burden of paying fees.

The third demand is that universities end the hated practice of outsourcing. Students at a number of campuses have led campaigns demanding that management of their respective universities ends this practice. At two universities, this campaign has been heating up. It has been given added profile by the protests over fee increases. As I write, workers from two campuses are meeting to plan wild-cat strikes to demand that they be employed by the universities. Studies show that for the university to employ the workers directly, is the same cost.

Workers are also demanding decent working conditions. They are victimised and prevented from joining trade unions. Management refuses to recognise trade unions.

As a student speaking at a public meeting explained, ‘Let’s get rid of outsourcing. We cannot continue to tolerate the exploitation, victimisation and intimidation of outsourced workers. We cannot continue to not take responsibility when we are responsible. Forward to a living wage! The companies must go! The workers must stay!’ This is absolutely correct. Until this happens South Africa will continue to see the protests that we are seeing now.

Many students were arrested and charged in the protests that rippled across the country. Some are facing crippling bail costs, others have been evicted from their campus accommodation and face severe hardships. To connect, receive updates from various campuses, or make donations please visit the following Facebook groups:

University of Stellenbosch (Open Stellenbosch)


University of Cape Town (Left Students Forum)


and University of Cape Town (Rhodes Must Fall)


University of Witwatersrand (Fees Must Fall)


and University of Witwatersrand (Workers Solidarity Committee)


University of Western Cape (Fees Will Fall)


For other updates please see



Ashley Fataar is a leading member of the Democratic Left Front in Cape Town and he writes for websites and newspapers around the world.


  1. The debates around the #feesmustfall the #rhodesmustfall and now #‎zumamustfall‬ have highlighted the growing argument about privilege theory and intersectionality. An article written by Esme Choonara and Yuri Prasad provides an excellent rejoinder to the claim that freedom from oppression comes from an individual analysis or focus. They rightly argue that it needs to be socially based in working class struggles. The article can be found at: http://isj.org.uk/whats-wrong-with-privilege-theory/


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