Lack-cess to education – the cycle of abuse against South African students continues

Seven postgraduate students from Wits University’s Critical Diversity Studies department write about the perennial funding crisis in higher education in South Africa. They argue that institutional failure via the government, universities, police, and apathetic citizens preserve the cycle of abuse against the majority of students in this country. South Africa, they say, cannot claim to be equal and free if privilege and power remain as the determinants of access and success. 

Access to education in South Africa should be termed “lack-cess to education”. While the educational sector receives the lion’s share of the national budget every year, we still find ourselves with broken and corrupt systems leaving underprivileged students, the majority of whom are black, with poorly trained teachers and without school toilets, adequate textbooks, school lunches.

A Grade 12 student is required to get a minimum of 30% to pass matric, which is a significantly low benchmark compared to other countries. According to Statistics South Africa, only 44.55% of matriculants who pass are qualified to apply for a bachelor’s degree, with white and indian students comprising a significant number, disproportionate to national population statistics.

Furthermore 51% of student youth aged 18-24 stated that they do not have the financial means to pay their university tuition, and in spite of financial aid promises the government has not been able to support them. We need to also consider the ways in which tertiary institutions perpetuate this failure by not providing poor black students with the tools, infrastructure and guidance they need to succeed at university. The university has always been and continues to be a place of elitism and power, exacerbating the divide between the rich and poor, and white and black. 

In recent years the government’s spending on higher education has decreased and this is divergent to the international norm. As a result of government allocations decreasing in real per capita terms, institutions of higher education had to increase tuition fees by more than the inflation rate over time. This increase in fees is driven by increase in demand as more students need to access institutions of higher learning ultimately impacting operational costs. Increasing tuition fees is higher education institutions’ fastest growing sources of non-government revenue to cover their financial shortfalls. 

According to data published in 2019 by Old Mutual, on average a first year degree costs about R85,000 and is expected to increase to about R107,600 by 2025 and as much as R165 600 by 2030. 

Studies show that only 5% of South African families can comfortably afford higher education. 

Thus, when state funding decreases and tuition fees continue to increase, low-income and historically disadvantaged groups of students are excluded. This demonstrates how capitalism and neoliberal economics is prioritised over social welfare and access. The people on the fringes of society lose the battle of the economy– a double-degradation in a way where not only would the needs of poor black people be sidelined comparable to national economic and investment needs, but they would also financially suffer because of this re-prioritisation. 

Violence and The Institution 

Violence has become desensitised and normalised in South Africa. From the day colonisers stepped on our shores we have known violence– a violence to our bodies, our minds and our souls. We carry it in our DNA and it festers to this day. Police brutality is a term we hear most often when talking about America, but it certainly applies within the South African context too. During aparthied black cops were employed to police black people and this system persists today.

It is a way of keeping the powerless in place using their own hands. Though no one here denies that the greatest atrocities to black and brown people have been perpetrated by white people, there is something deeply sinister about the way white supremacy created conditions in which black people inflict harm upon within their own community. In allowing the police in this country to continually dehumanise and injure people who are exercising their constitutional right to protest, we enact self-betrayal and preserve a system that was built to keep us shackled, silent and invisible. 

A fellow student recalled allowing terrified students running from police bullets to take shelter at a building where she worked on the day. They were being shot at while running away and this image strikes too close to home in the form of the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre. How can we allow this to happen again? We have carried so many legacies of colonisation and apartheid with us into “democracy”, and if this is true then are we truly free and equal? We are triggered by history repeating itself – re-igniting deep-seated traumas in the face of unmet promises, unhealed wounds and a web of structural violence perpetrated by multiple institutions ironically appointed for the sole purpose of public protection and support. 

In discussing the protest with a fellow South African, she warned: “South Africa will always shoot you!”. This expression and experience includes and places responsibility on all institutions–government, universities, and police. Furthermore these institutions hide behind the excuse of protection and safety, but who is really unsafe here? The answer: those who are forced to take to the streets to have their voices heard because this country continues to suffocate them. 

Media Representations of Student Protests 

“Watch news reports switch to paint TUT students in ways where they’re seen as ‘extra’ and ‘violent’ or ‘savage’ unlike the Wits students who were reflected as victims of police brutality in the past” week@ – @Penxenxe via Twitter. 

It is no secret that historically disadvantaged black universities have long been experiencing disruptions even before the 2015 nationwide university shutdown, mostly due to financial exclusion and poor university facilities, but why has there been little media coverage of this? Is this because these institutions are predominantly black and are seen as part of a poor economic class? And when these protests have caught public attention, why is it that only violent and aggressive scenes are depicted, making little to no mention of the protesters’ valid demands? It is important that we reflect on some of these issues as far as student-led protests are concerned so as to challenge the rhetoric and redress the narrative that violent protests bear a black, angry and poor face. 

Response by Wits 

Following the student protests on March 9th, Wits emailed a statement to students and staff the next day, entitled “Wits Statement on the Passing of a Civilian in Braamfontein Today”. The content of this statement acknowledged the death of a bystander during the protest, though there was no mention of the police being responsible for this killing. The only students recognised as being injured were two student reporters, and not the numerous student protestors intentionally and negligently shot by cops with rubber bullets.

The most outrageous part of the statement read as follows: “The SA Police Services were managing the situation”. If anything, the police were the greatest perpetrators of violence and their actions led to the death of a bystander and injury to a great number of students. Wits stated that queries about the protest be directed toward the police, removing themselves of any responsibility and involvement. Finally, counselling services were offered to staff and students who required assistance as a result of the protests. The irony here is that the students who were traumatised and injured are the very students who were protesting due to financial exclusion and therefore do not have access to the university’s mental health services. 

Following the March 10 statement, another statement was released to staff and students outlining the funding allowances for 2021 which stated that Wits was doing everything they could to help students who required financial aid. In doing this, Wits positions itself as the generous benefactor carefully listing each and every funding source, rather than detailing the number of students who were financially excluded and what services would be directly offered to them. 

On the 11th of March Wits Vice Chancellor, Prof Zeblon Vilakazi held an online press conference to discuss the higher education financial crisis, followed by an interview with Bongani Bengwa on Radio 702. The conference began with Events and PR Officer Rechelle Tsunke saying: “It has been a difficult few days for people at Wits and for the media as well”. It is preposterous to suggest that the media has suffered due to the protests, or that a press conference should be held to provide a space for the media to raise questions, while students were offered no such platform.

This is why students are driven to the streets as it their only means to be seen and heard. In the past month Wits has sent students more emails detailing campus logistics than anything definitive or substantive regarding the protests or the students affected. More has been done by Wits to address the protests and financial issues with the media than students, suggesting that Wits has been intently focused on structuring the narrative in their favour in the media and by extension to the rest of the public, rather than including student voices in the dialogue. Wits has demonstrated their commitment to irrelevant parties during this crisis rather than students, and responded in reductive, insufficient and biased ways to the protests. As students, Wits owes us answers and tangible solutions, not rhetoric; our voices need to be centered, not sidelined. 

We remain fiercely committed to the right to education and the right to protest, and stand firmly behind students excluded from tertiary education due to financial constraints. We denounce the biased portrayals of student protestors as dangerous, unreasonable, violent and militarised. Jailed students must be freed, charges against them must be dropped, and the police must be held responsible for excessive force and brutality. Wits must centre the voices of marginalised students and offer substantive responses and solutions and the government has to acknowledge and address these institutional failures, and provide tangible solutions to better support students. 

To the student protestors: we see you, we hear you, we acknowledge your pain and sacrifice and come to you as allies in this fight. 


Written by: Uvania Naidoo, Maria Lombaard, Lucritia Govender, Lesedi Tshabalala, Yukako Ban, Kathrin Maier and Brightman Makoni

Note: The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own and in no way is an expression of the stance of the department and university to which they are affiliated. They also do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Daily Vox.