South African Student Protests Rattle Zuma's Ruling ANC Party

  • Protests see rand slip most of emerging-market currencies
  • Education is top ruling party priority, President Zuma says

Students march towards Prime Ministry building as they shout slogans and hold banners during a protest against the increase of tuition fees in Pretoria, South Africa.

Photographer: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

South African university students accomplished in 10 days what opposition parties failed to do since the first all-race elections in 1994: successfully challenge the might of the ruling African National Congress.

President Jacob Zuma bowed to demands on Friday that tuition costs be capped at current levels after the biggest student protests since the end of apartheid sparked running battles between demonstrators and riot police outside Parliament in Cape Town and the government head offices in Pretoria, the capital. The concession hasn’t completely quelled the unrest. Several campuses remained shut this week, with some students demanding that fees be scrapped altogether.

“This is a watershed event in post-apartheid South Africa,’’ said Mzukisi Qobo, an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg’s Pan African Institute, by phone. “The students have shown that it is possible to shake the political establishment. I think the fire will spread. Other organized formations will see that it is possible to twist the arm of government.’’

Public Anger

While the ANC has won more than 60 percent of the vote in every election since 1994, public anger is mounting over a 25 percent unemployment rate and one of the world’s highest levels of inequality. The fee concession means the state and universities must find an additional 2.6 billion rand ($190 million) in funding at a time when the economy is close to a recession and facing a credit-rating downgrade.

The protests have rattled investors, with the rand slipping 4.3 percent against the dollar since the start of last week, the second most of 24 emerging-market currencies monitored by Bloomberg.

They also come a few months before municipal elections in which opposition parties hope to wrest control of several major cities from the ANC, including Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Yet, the main opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters, may not be able to capitalize on the unrest because few students vote, said Keith Gotschalk, a retired politics lecturer, who taught at the University of the Western Cape.

Local Elections

“There is relatively little connection between campus politics and national and local elections,’’ he said by phone from Cape Town. “The student protests will not necessarily translate into a swing at the polls.’’

On Tuesday, more than 10,000 people joined an EFF march to the stock exchange, central bank and Chamber of Mines in Johannesburg to demand interest rate cuts, minimum wages for miners and a more equitable distribution of the country’s wealth.

While the ANC, Africa’s oldest political party, led the fight against apartheid rule, many students were born after Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black president.

Since then, student enrollment at South Africa’s universities has doubled to about 1 million, 72 percent of whom are black, according to Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande. The government wants that number to rise to 1.6 million by 2030, and has opened three new universities since the start of last year.

“The nub of the matter is we are victims of our own successes as the ANC government,” Nzimande told lawmakers in Cape Town on Tuesday. “We know the challenges facing our students and communities because these are our children. We are dealing with these challenges. ”

Twitter Campaign

The #FeesMustFall Twitter campaign was fueled by rising student costs, including fees, housing food and textbooks that can exceed 100,000 rand a year. First-year tuition alone at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where the protests started, ranges from about 32,000 rand to more than 58,000 rand.

The university’s student representative council, which agreed to resume classes on Wednesday while continuing to lobby for free education, condemned any attempt to politicize its campaign.

The protests were initiated “with the sole intention of advancing the student agenda,” the council said in a statement on its website. “This remains our sole premise.”

In a bid to deflect criticism of the ANC and his six-year-old administration, Zuma said the party has made education a top priority and decided in 2007 that it should progressively be made free to poor undergraduates.

Stun Grenades

“The message from the students that were marching in the past week is therefore in line with ANC policy,’’ Zuma, 73, said in an Oct. 25 speech in the southern town of Port Elizabeth. “That is why the ANC came out in full support of the student protests.’’

The scenes of police using stun grenades to battle students outside Parliament and Zuma’s offices at the Union Buildings suggested that ANC has failed to persuade the students that it’s on their side.

“In the past, the ANC has claimed that they are the movement of the people in general and there is almost a symbiosis between them and the South African population,” said Dirk Kotze, a politics professor at the University of South Africa. “They cannot make that claim any more.’’

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