Issue 14

Fees Must Fall

South Africa's youthquake to gain an equal view of the lectern.

The missing middle

The movement was led by students who slipped between the cracks to the missing middle. These is the term given to students not quite poor enough to qualify for state subsidy, whose parents would be considered “middle class”, but who cannot afford to attend university. The student body demographic altered dramatically post-apartheid. But while it became easier to get a place in university, staying there was financial hardship to the point of failure. Financial aid barely covers the necessities, but essentials like transport, food, internet and even healthcare and electricity were unattainable by many students. This hardship fostered an environment ripe for revolt, and with the announcement that the fees were to rise in different increments across the countries universities, (10.5% in the University of Witwatersrand ranging to as high as 50% in University of Pretoria) , even though inflation was only at 6%, the touchpaper was lit.

Deeper roots

Though it appeared to happen suddenly, Thabo Shingange, who led Fees Must Fall in the University of Pretoria, explains to YOUTH that the movement had deeper roots than it may have appeared. “2015 was the peak of something that was long coming” he said.

Shingange, who at the time was a final year undergraduate student studying a degree in Political science and Philosophy, as well as being the branch secretary of the South African Students Congress (SASCO) and a member of the SRC (elect) for the following academic year, said, “Since 1994 the South African Students Congress (SASCO) had been at the forefront of this call with the annual Right to Learn campaign and the One Million Signatures campaign demanding the state to implement free education. In 2015, the call was intensified and radicalized with new theories and ideologies changing how students engaged with universities and an unresponsive state.”

Rhodes Must Fall

The refrain of #FeesMustFall was inspired by the movement of the previous year which had called for the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Capetown.

This had been a slow burning bone of contention since the 1950s due to its perceived symbolism of white supremacy in the university campus, but the rancour exploded on the 9th of March 2015 when Chumani Maxwele threw human faeces onto the statue, which sparked a physical altercation with security and his subsequent arrest. Though the protest was initially about the removal of the statue, the underlying issues of institutional racism, the perceived lack of racial transformation at the university and access to tertiary education and student accommodation were quickly voiced as accompanying concerns.

The statue was removed on the 9th of April but public consciousness had seen the change its actions could affect and this undoubtedly influenced the subsequent movement.

This was an intersectional movement- a combination of black consciousness, black radical feminist thought and queer theories amongst other ideologies which gave rise to a new voice, which enticed the disillusioned and struggling students of 2016.


Beginning on October 14th 2015, with a lockdown in the University of Witwatersrand that lasted three days, the protest then spread to the University of Cape Town and Rhodes University before rapidly spreading to other universities across the country.

Dramatic scenes ensued on 21st of October when students from both the University of Cape Town as well as the Cape Peninsula University of Technology formed a crowd of around 5,000 protesters which marched on the South African Parliament. The higher education minister addressed the crowd but was repeatedly booed, whilst President Zuma left the Parliamentary buildings from a side entrance. Other parliamentarians were advised by the speaker of the house to wait out the protests in their offices.

Protesters broke through the gates of the parliamentary precinct and began to stage a sit-in protest, but riot police soon moved in to disperse them using stun grenades, tasers, coloured gas, riot shields and truncheons. Many protesters were arrested and the presence of riot police was questioned by the press.

The 2015 protest led to an eventual victory with the announcement that there was to be no increase for the year following a moving scene in the suburb surrounding the Nelson Mandela University campus. A spontaneous march through the suburb threatened to be dispersed by riot police, but diplomatic negotiations on the part of the students ended up in the police escorting the march to City Hall.

With incredible resourcefulness, the students trained up and appointed marshals within half an hour in order to keep the march on one lane of traffic and not shut down the entire suburb. They arrived at city hall with black and white students holding hands, at which point the education minister immediately announced the increase was being rescinded.

Short-lived Victory

This was a victory that was short-lived as, the following year, the announcement was made in September that fees would rise but that the increase would be capped at 8%. This sparked outrage again among the student leaders, and this combined with the pending local government elections saw the previously unified group split into different factions with the black consciousness eventually emerging as the loudest voice. Though they were eloquent and rousing, they lacked strategy and sought no advice from veteran activists. This round of protests felt disunited and intolerant compared to the previous diplomatic activism.

Burning barricades were lit at Nelson Mandela University on 20th of September which resulted in the shutdown of the university. Protesting became more volatile and many universities experienced extensive property damage as the shutdowns and protests spread once more. Universities scrambled to try to reopen to finish the academic year. Two rounds of negotiations failed and clashes between students and police were riotous. Property was further damaged extensively and police were accused of using excessive force including the firing of rubber bullets at point blank range, however no students nor staff were harmed or killed throughout the protest.

The Fallist movement insisted that no universities would re-open without “free de-colonized education for all”. The universities stopped negotiations at this point and moved off campus to finish the academic year in secure locations.

The protests ended anti-climactically at that point without a clear resolution as the students chose to finish the year out rather than have to re-register and pay again to repeat the academic year.


Thought he protests ended without achieving their aim at the time, the movement eventually triumphed in its objectives. Shingange explains the current situation: "As we speak the state has rolled out free education, however there are some challenges that need to be addressed... 16 December 2017, the then state President, President Jacob Zuma, announced free education for the poor and missing middle to be implemented with immediate effect as of the 2018 academic year, beginning with 1st year enrolments, and would be rolled out over the next three years until undergraduate completion (in short, there is free education for poor and missing middle - i.e. anyone earning below R350k per annum (about €23,500) - at first year level and will be rolled out for the entire undergrad over the next three years).”

The movement as a whole had an indelible effect not only on the landscape of the Universities of South Africa, but also of the wider national sentiment. While the second part of the protest became fragmented, the initial wave showed cohesion and empowered a youth that had up to that point been blindly loyal to the government. A youthquake cracked this dam, opening the floodgates for future change.

Empowered Youth of the ‘Rainbow nation’

When asked about the empowerment of youth in the wake of the protests and its stark comparison to the previous 21 years, Shingange concedes that South Africa had been somewhat blinkered to their own conditions in the wake of apartheid by the positive global view of them as the “Rainbow Nation”.

“Since the 1994 democratic dispensation, not many citizens would have imagined that 21 years into South Africa’s democracy, students in institutions of Higher Education would bring the country to a standstill through a series of political events like the student protests of 1976. Not many would have imagined such events unfolding, not because protest in a democracy is unimagined - if anything it is protected and given platform constitutionally - but simply because South African citizens had arguably become passive agents of change and consumed by the glooming narrative of the ‘rainbow nation’ and the ‘born-free mantra’; so much so, that little attention was paid to the catalytic conditions prone to post-apartheid Higher Education. And so out of this passive approach to change, in 2015 the youth once again took an active radicalized way of demonstrating their agency within growing rates of unemployment and the slow progress of transformation in society.”

By creating this movement, South Africa’s youth have accelerated societal transformation for the betterment of themselves and their futures. Shingange perfectly sums up the truth of the youthquake in his parting comment to YOUTH, “An organized youth is a powerful youth”.

Nora Costigan