As thousands of South African university students protested against tuition fee hikes this week, one banner stood out for its raw summary of post-apartheid disappointment: “Our parents were sold dreams in 1994. We are just here for the refund!”
Former South African president Nelson Mandela’s erstwhile liberation party, the African National Congress (ANC), has comfortably won elections since toppling oppressive white rule 21 years ago, but is now losing favor with black voters who say it has done little to improve their lives.
In scenes that, for some, recalled the 1976 massacre of students protesting the use of Afrikaans in some schools, police this week threw stun grenades at students who stormed the parliament precinct as South African Minister of Finance Nhlanhla Nene read a budget speech.
They have boycotted classes for a week, angry over university administrators’ plans to raise fees by as much as 11.5 percent and demanding that the government deliver on its post-apartheid promise to provide education for all.
Today’s crop of post-apartheid students, dubbed “Born Frees,” have no experience of white-minority rule, but have borne the brunt of the legacy of the abject poverty that afflicts millions of blacks two decades later.
South African President Jacob Zuma’s government, anxious to avoid downgrades by credit rating agencies as it nurses a budget deficit of nearly 4 percent of GDP, says it cannot afford to provide blanket free education.
However, it has found little sympathy as it grapples with accusations of corruption and misuse of public funds, including a US$19 million state-funded security upgrade to Zuma’s home.
“This protest may appear to be about tuition fees, but what lies beneath is poverty, unemployment, tardy and uncaring service delivery, broken promises and the denial of opportunity,” NKC African Economics analyst Gary van Staden said.
“Free education, free housing, justice for all and a place in the sun in a new democratic South Africa was always going to be a hard ask, but slowly, over the years, what was lost was the ideal and what was betrayed was the promise,” Van Staden said.
Opposition parties have been quick to make political mileage, with an eye on municipal elections due next year.
Legislators from the radical leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) were ejected from parliament in full view of TV cameras after trying to block Nene from making his speech until the university fees fallout was resolved.
The EFF last year won 25 of 400 parliamentary seats in a national vote, and has portrayed itself as the party representing the interests of millions of poor South Africans.
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