Chairs flew through the air as student protesters tried to shut down the Higher Education National Convention in Johannesburg, South Africa. Singing turned to chanting and pushing as protesters rushed towards the stage. The students were protesting the keynote speaker, South Africa’s education minister, Blade Nzimande. As the protest became violent, Nzimande was ushered away and the event was canceled.

“What is [Nzimande] going to say? He’s not going to say anything we want to hear,” one protester said.

The protest was one of many demonstrations throughout South Africa condemning the government’s failure to carry out effective education reform. United under the hashtag #FeesMustFall, students across the country have spent the last several years protesting the steady rise of public university fees.

The struggle gained mainstream attention after student demonstrations broke out at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) in 2015. The school’s administration announced that fees for the next school year would increase by 10.5 percent, a major change intensely opposed by students. In response to protests surrounding the fee hike, South African President Jacob Zuma implemented a temporary freeze of all public university fees for the following academic year; universities were barred from raising school fees.

Despite the freeze, protests have continued.

“University fees [were] high way before the increase,” explained Mduduzi Makgata, a first year student at the University of Pretoria studying for a commerce degree, in an online correspondence with The Politic. “The fee freeze had zero effect.”

“The increase in University fees is like adding petrol to a fire,” Makgata continued. His fees for university total around 100,000 Rand (7,296 dollars) per year—more than his entire family makes.

Luckily, Makgata received a large loan from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) which allows him to attend school. But keeping up with fees can pose daily challenges.

“Fees are so high. The NSFAS can’t cover it all. I still owe the university residence a lot of money and they keep sending me emails and sms’s reminding me that I could get kicked out any moment which makes it difficult to focus on studying,” Makgata explained.

Current tensions surrounding school fees trace back to the early 1900s, when South Africa established its national education system. The original collection of South African universities contained schools that were all-white, all-black, or racially integrated. Some universities taught only in Afrikaans and aimed to educate the white Afrikaner elite. There were also universities that focused on educating black students. Other elite universities, like the University of Cape Town (UCT), instructed in English and were racially integrated.

“The idea was that anyone who had gone through the requisite secondary training could register and take courses [at integrated universities],” said Yale South African history professor Daniel Magaziner in an interview with The Politic. “In actuality, very few [black] Africans were able to.”

When the Apartheid government rose to power in 1948, even these few opportunities disappeared—all universities were segregated.

“UCT, Wits, all of these universities that had had this nominal black student body become whole white universities,” explained Magaziner. “[The government] creates a whole series of new universities for Africans that are divided by ethnicity and are located in the Bantustans, which are these fictive colonies that the Apartheid government created in order to create this illusion that there was one white South Africa and then there were ten smaller ethnically delimited polemical spaces.”

The already small percentage of black students enrolled in university before Apartheid dropped dramatically with the election of an all-white government. In 1974, despite making up more than 80 percent of the population, black Africans comprised 0.1 percent of the enrolled university population within South Africa.

After the election of Nelson Mandela and the end of Apartheid in 1994, the South African government worked to reintegrate the higher education system. The new leadership pushed elite universities reserved for white students, such as the University of Cape Town, to admit African students.

“The white universities [resisted],” said Magaziner. “What [resulted] is a university system that is very much bifurcated between elite all-white universities that begin to integrate and then these very poor underfunded universities in the Bantustans that still exist that are brought under the national system of higher education.”

Former Bantustan universities, which remain under-resourced and undesirable to white privileged youth, have become a primary destination of higher education for black students.

“They remain 99-100 percent black and it’s in those universities where fees must fall begins before the hashtag,” Magaziner continued.

However, for many South African youth, the very prospect of attending university remains far out of reach. Within Mamelodi, the second largest township in South Africa, lavish homes and a large university campus share the street with small shacks. Low-income citizens in Mamelodi are lucky if they receive access to basic educational needs.

Makgata recognizes that his university education is a rare privilege for black South African students.

“I’m very grateful,” he reflected. “We [black students] have been struggling to get into university. Most of our brothers and sisters dropped out, some couldn’t even get in, not because of academics but because of financial constraints.”

Because of the structural challenges facing all levels of South African education, activists like Richard Kelley, the founder and director of the Mamelodi Initiative, have remained removed from the #FeesMustFall movement. In Mamelodi, there are still basic needs that are not being met.

If you’re a nonprofit, you’re focused on primary school access or water access, things on a much more basic level,” Kelley told The Politic.

The Initiative works in Mamelodi to provide students with access to educational resources through collaborative leadership councils, after-school programs, and computer literacy initiatives. Their work focuses on the primary and secondary students as they prepare to apply to college.

Kelley said that improving higher education starts at the primary school level.

“Unfortunately, it’s still a pretty big privilege to go to university from Mamelodi. South Africa does have a lot of work still to do on making sure that there’s access to education for everyone,” said Kelley. “Part of that is going to be figuring out this fee hike crisis. But it’s also just as much about figuring out how you get good education at every level.”

The fight for more affordable universities does not end at lowering tuition costs. Beyond the rising fees exists an entire education system in peril.

What is being obscured by this attention paid to universities is that the South African education system—from primary school through secondary school to the matriculation exams which allows you to go to university—is in crisis,” explained Magaziner.

The entire South African education system is fraught with obstacles. At the primary and secondary education levels, township schools are under-resourced and do not typically provide students with the education they need to succeed. Most scholarships are based on academic success, which places many low-income township students in a bind.

“If only you could step into a Grade 12 Maths classroom in any high school in Mamelodi or any township, you would understand why it is so difficult to get high marks,” said Makgata.

Students who manage to make it through secondary school must take the National Senior Certificate matriculation exam, or Matric. Matric is a series of standardized tests that determine to which colleges students are eligible to apply. Failing the Matric bars students from enrolling in university. The fail rate is remarkably high, especially considering the stakes: 23.8 percent of students failed the Matric in 2016. That translates to around 190,400 high school students.

Financial aid also remains inaccessible. Many students, like Makgata, receive loans from the government that leave them in deep debt by the time they graduate. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme provided 186,150 students with loans in 2014. Some third-party organizations distribute bursaries, and the government also offers tuition subsidies for specific areas of study, like agriculture. Even if students are given financial aid, however, they might not receive enough money—or not receive it in time.

“Often, loans or bursaries are distributed late, which means that students aren’t able to then pay for their fees or for their books until into the semester,” said Kelley.

It is common for students to become eligible for private scholarships only once they are several years into their studies.  

“One of the big challenges is that usually your first year, you may not have a bursary or a scholarship,” said Kelley.

“Sometimes you are able to gain [a scholarship] as you go, from companies that you will work for as long as you promise to work for them afterwards. So one of the biggest gaps is surviving that first and possibly second year in university until you have a spot from a company,” Kelley continued. With costs quickly rising, paying full fees for that first and second year is often impossible.

These barriers to attaining college degrees create a culture of apathy at the primary and secondary school levels.

“If kids see that they’re never going to be able to afford university, it impacts their commitment to education,” said Kelley.

This sense of hopelessness similarly discourages South Africans from pursuing jobs in education.

“If you don’t have individuals who are going off to education or kids who are walking away with a lot more debt, the likelihood that they’re going to come teach in a township school is impacted,” he said.

Fees affect universities just as much as they affect students. Universities in South Africa predominantly run on fees. If the fees stop rising, universities stop running. Though government funding for public universities has increased by around 70 percent over the past 15 years, student enrollment has also increased dramatically. The government hasn’t been able to keep up.

“If fees don’t rise, then those universities actually have a very hard time functioning,” said Magaziner. “The year of the [fee] freeze put a real burden on the universities to try and maintain their excellence while also dealing with the fact that students can’t afford to pay fees. If you want to keep the university structure, they will argue—even people who are very sympathetic to [students]—if you want Wits or UCT to remain a truly elite global universities, you can’t stop raising fees.”

An alternative to raising fees is raising taxes. But the African National Congress (ANC), the party of Mandela and current majority party in government, has been known to mishandle government funds, a practice that has led to public mistrust. A growing movement in South Africa is calling for the resignation of  the current president, Jacob Zuma. This movement is united under the banner “Zuma Must Fall.” The first South African president without a university degree, Zuma used 16 million dollars in government funds to renovate his private home in 2009–funds that could have gone to subsidizing public education.

“No one has any faith that even if [the government] were to tax more, that the ANC government under Zuma would actually spend it wisely. These are people who systematically pillage government revenues,” said Magaziner.

Still, the #FeesMustFall movement has received considerable backlash for the violence perpetrated by some of its members. Last October, #FeesMustFall protests caused nearly 50 dollars million worth of damage. With the media focusing on the more violent wings of #FeesMustFall, some people in South Africa are asking whether these protests are doing more harm than good.

“I think to conflate an approach to everyone’s approach is often oversimplifying. I think that protest movements are not always as unified as we would like them to be seen,” said Kelley.

While many #FeesMustFall protests are peaceful, not every part of the movement has agreed on a single method.

“People have found or feel that the only way their voice is ever heard is if they create some sort of damage or stop something from going. Some students are feeling that the only way to get heard is by causing something that requires an address,” Kelley continued.

These criticisms are not unique to #FeesMustFall.

“People were asking those same questions about the protests that shut down the various workings of the government under apartheid,” said Magaziner. “When people would protest, when they would burn things, when they would register their discontent, people would say: ‘Look at this amount of damage. Is this more harm than good?’ This is the grammar of South protests.

This is what you do. You disrupt in the face of perceived injustice.”

Despite political, historical, and socioeconomic barriers to reforming the South African education system, students like Makgata remain hopeful.

“If more people could realize that this is not about just students, it’s about the country as a whole,” he said, “and if the whole country joined, fees will surely fall.”