Under the Radar: South African students pressure mining sector to fund free tuition

Under the Radar: South African students pressure mining sector to fund free tuition

Anger with the ANC continues to grow, as students in South Africa stage nation-wide protests against a planned tuition hike. Protesters are calling for free tuition, and are putting pressure on the mining industry to help fund it.

South Africa is facing increasing instability as student protests sweep across the country, leading to violent clashes with police. The unrest began last week, and has continued to intensify in response to government plans to raise tuition fees by up to eight percent in 2017. Currently, only nine of the country’s 26 universities are operating, with student demonstrators rallying to pressure the government to introduce free tuition.

South Africa’s education problems

Across South Africa, #feesmustfall and #fees2017 are trending, as student organizations call on the government to properly invest in higher education. Higher education is a sensitive issue in the country, as black South Africans were effectively excluded from tertiary learning until the fall of the apartheid regime in 1994. Even today, despite 80% of the population being black, less than a quarter of university students in South Africa are black; black university lecturers are also underrepresented in higher education.

Apartheid era inequalities have persisted in South Africa’s higher education sector, often exasperated by the ANC’s failure to tackle inequality and cost of living concerns. Students protesters argue implementing free tuition would help address these inequalities, as well as aid a faltering economy over-reliant on commodities.

A major contributing factor to this under-representation is that South African universities only have enough space for the top 18% of students. Limited places, combined with exceedingly high tuition fees for many middle and working families, sees some 200,000 students unable to attend university every year due to monetary restrictions. Furthermore, of the 18% who gain admittance, almost 50% fail to graduate, with unmanageable tuition fees a major reason for this high dropout rate, according to a 2013 study by the Council on Higher Education.

In 2015, similar protests forced the government to freeze tuition hikes. Since then, the government has backtracked from its promise of a 6% cap on tuition increases. The proposed 8% increase for 2017 far exceeds the rate of inflation, undermining government claims that the increase is a necessary, periodical adjustment.

Anger with ANC fuels protests

With South Africa teetering just above junk status, a slowing economy, and falling support for the ANC, President Jacob Zuma has been forced into a corner. Racked by party and personal scandals – including an impeachment attempt – Zuma led the ANC to its worst electoral result in August, losing three major cities and further eroding the party’s urban support base. Consequently, these student protests are further undermining the ANC’s urban support, leading Zuma to “instruct the justice, crime prevention, and security cluster to deal with the mayhem that is destroying our institutions of higher education” according to Jeff Radebe, Minister in the Presidency.

On September 22nd, the security building at the University of Fort Hare was torched by students, and earlier in the month 32 students were arrested for setting fire to the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s law library. Two students were also injured by police stun grenades and rubber bullets during demonstrations at the University of Witwatersrand.

This week saw further confrontations, as University of Johannesburg students were pepper sprayed by private security employees on Wednesday. Wednesday also saw police fire rubber bullets at students from UCKAR (Rhodes) leading to allegations of police brutality as 12 students were arrested and a further four hospitalized. Six students were also arrested following allegations of excessive police force during protests at the University of Limpopo.

South Africa was already racked by violence in June surrounding local elections and interference by the ANC leadership with the campaigns of local candidates. In recent years the country has also repeatedly suffered from violent protests by miners angered by the government’s failure to implement social safety nets, and enforce regulations; a failing which has led to turf wars between rival mining unions. Students are just the latest demographic to organize against the government, as Zuma’s legitimacy continues to ebb away.

University of Witwatersrand SRC President Mcebo Dlamini maintains that the call for free tuition is not unfeasible; “it’s a matter of priorities” says Dlamini, “if we bail out South African Airlines for billions and billions, if these billions were taken to education, it would have assisted. To the ANC government we are saying it’s a matter of priorities [sic]”

South Africa’s financial woes and the ANC’s raft of financial scandals have put greater focus on inequality in the country, with student activists publishing the salaries of top South African executives to highlight their grievances. Alongside calls on the government to implement free tuition in higher education, students are also looking to the private sector.

Students eye mining sector to fund free tuition

South African students have called on the private sector to help rescue the nation’s higher education sector, with a particular focus on the mining industry. On Wednesday, hundreds of students marched on the office of the Chamber of Mines (CoM), demanding that the organization help fund free tuition. Specifically, students are urging the CoM to pressure mining companies to commit more money to education initiatives, as well as list public companies locally, as opposed to overseas.

Furthermore, protesters are calling on the CoM to use its clout to lobby the government to increase education funding. The South African Student Congress has called on the government to get the Public Investment Corporation to invest monies from the the Government Employees Pension Fund – the country’s largest – in higher education. Students hope that the CoM could apply pressure on the government to adopt this recommendation, given the substantial role played by mining royalties in financing said funds.

On Wednesday, senior CoM executive Vusi Mabena accepted the student’s memorandum, and saluted them for their activist efforts, promising a response within two weeks. The CoM has stated that it shares the concerns of students, noting that “in the 2015 financial year alone, the Chamber and its members invested more than $359 million in skills development and education projects,” as well as aiding over 18,000 students over the past five years.

Despite this, the CoM has also noted that the mining sector is facing strong headwinds, as the country’s mining industry suffered a combined $2.66 billion loss in 2015.

It is important to note that student demonstrators at CoM offices were joined by a representative from the Union of Mine Workers. This could herald possible ties between student and union protesters, forming a more unified opposition to the ANC, and leading to future joint protest actions. Miner complaints about lack of oversight and poor social services, mesh well with student calls for free tuition, as anger at the political establishment and concerns about inequality drive both protest movements.

The CoM and mining companies therefore face mounting pressure from both outside and within the sector, a trend that will only further increase investor wariness. Pressure from students and miners on the CoM could well force a confrontation between the Chamber and government, as the former demands government action to assuage protester demands. Given that the government is already worried about economic turmoil due to the end of the commodity super-cycle, it is in Pretoria’s best interest to avoid further weakening the mining sector.

Two routes exist: either pressure from the mining sector causes the government to double down on its crackdown of protests, or industry and Pretoria strike a deal. Said deal may involve greater government investment in education, taking some of the onus from the CoM, but at the price of re-negotiated mining royalty contracts in order to pay for this new spending.

A third ‘option’ is for Pretoria to simple continue to muddle along, and hope that the issue blows over. This appears unlikely to succeed, as in the face of inaction, protests will only increase as the 2017 fee hike approaches.

Under the Radar uncovers political risk events around the world overlooked by mainstream media. By detecting hidden risks, we keep you ahead of the pack and ready for new opportunities.

Under the Radar is written by Jeremy Luedi.

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