Free education: A roundup


Perdeby has produced a summary covering events since 2015.


January #TransformWits was launched in response to the University of the Witwatersrand’s (Wits) conversion of financial aid (that helped finance poor students’ studies) into loans.

February 1Million 1Month campaign launched at Wits to raise funds for financially excluded students. These were Wits students who were unable to pay their registration fees and had historic debt with the university (unpaid tuition fees carried over from 2014), thus preventing them to continue with their studies.

March ChumaniMaxwele threw human excrement at a statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town’s Rondebosch campus, sparking the #RhodesMustFall movement and the call for a decolonised UCT and higher education.

19 September Then Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande announced a proposed 8 percent increase in South African university tuition fees. This announcement sparked Fees Must Fall – a student led protest movement across universities in response to the proposed fee increase.

14 October Following the university’s announcement that it would raise its fees by 10.5% percent Wits held a sit-in and lock down of the institution, demanding that management sign their memorandum of demands.

16 October UPrising, “a collective cause and movement of the students [at UP]”, was founded. UPrising’s Facebook page said that the group’s aim was to host “a peaceful protest to voice the frustrations of students concerning fee increments on all platforms”.

19 October The University currently known as Rhodes (UCKAR) joined the protests by barricading the roads leading to the university. UCT students also joined the #RhodesMustFall.

20 October Nzimande announced that vice-chancellors across the country agreed to reduce the 2016 proposed fee increase to 6%. This was rejected by students nationwide and protests continued for a 0% increase. Stellenbosch University, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, University of Fort Hare and Nelson Mandela University joined the movement.

21 October Tshwane University of Technology, University of Limpopo and University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) joined the nationwide protests. UPrising held a mass meeting and over 2000 students marched to UP’s Administration Building to hand over a memorandum of 13 demands to vice-chancellor and principal Cheryl de la Rey. UPrising spokesperson Karabo Sekhukhuni, in a gathering at the Student Centre, said that fees must not be increased at all for 2016.

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23 October Students from several South African universities participated in a mass march to the Union Buildings. The approximately 15 000 students, some of whom were from the Tshwane University of Technology, the University of Johannesburg, Wits, and UP expected President Zuma to address them at midday. Although he did not do so, after 15:00 President Zuma announced from within the Union Buildings that there would be no increase in tuition fees in 2016.


In January 2016, President Zuma established a Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training (Heher Commission). The Commission was charged with looking into the feasibility of free higher education and was led by was led by Judge Jonathan Heher, assisted by advocate Gregory Ally and Leah Khumalo.

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Fees Must Fall Reloaded, as it was later coined, represented a second set of protests as students believed that the 2016 0% increase merely represented a freezing instead of a falling of fees. Many students believed that as fees had not fallen, several students were still at risk of being financially excluded and unable to return to their studies. As the beginning of the academic year commenced, fallists (Fees Must Fall activists) at Wits demanded that registration fees be scrapped. In mid-August, universities faced another round of potential shutdowns that started with University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) cancelling their lectures, and Wits and UP engaging in consultations.

On 20 September, Nzimande announced that the fee increment for 2017 would be 8% but that households who earn below R600 000 per annum would be exempt from the increase. He later decided to allow universities to decide on their own fee increase percentage individually according to how much they needed to “continue to operate effectively and at least maintain existing quality”. “Our recommendation is that fee adjustments should not go above 8%,” said Nzimande.


President Jacob Zuma received the Fees Commission Report at the end of August.
On 13 November the Presidency released the Report. Therein it was stated that there “is insufficient financial capacity in the state to provide totally free higher education and training to all who are unable to finance their own education, let alone all students, whether in need or not”. The report recommended that a cost-sharing model for funding university be implemented. If adopted, it would be in the form of an income contingent loan (ICL) scheme. It would be a deferred loan scheme for all students, and offer an opt-out provision. It was also recommended that ICLs should replace NSFAS in funding university students.

On 16 December, Pres. Zuma announced that the government would subsidise free tertiary education for the poor and working class students. His announcement, which coincided with the beginning of the ANC’s 54th elective conference, highlighted that students in their first year of study at public universities would be funded through government grants and not loans. This decision was viewed as an overruling of the Heher Commission’s recommendations as the Fees Commission report stated that there was a “dire economic need” in the country, which meant that “a large proportion of existing and future students will be unable to exercise [their] right to further education”.


The practicalities of funding free education: In order to fund free higher education government needs R12 billion. Currently South Africa faces a R50.8 billion revenue shortfall. Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba announced that slow economic growth contributed to the shortfall. Tom Moyane, Commissioner at South African Revenue Service, supported this notion. “South Africa is lagging well behind with the latest outlook for the 2017/18 Financial year trailing at a GDP growth rate of 0.9%,” said Moyane to iol.

According to News24, in 2017, South African Airlines was given a R5.2 billion bailout as operating capital and to service its debt. On 12 January 2018, the Mail&Guardian reported that Eskom was in dire financial distress and needed R20 billion to keep operating until March 2018. The publication reported that it is likely that the parastatal will have to look to government for the funds, as Eskom’s attempts to raise funds in the local and foreign capital markets, through investors, had proven difficult due to concerns of poor governance by the enterprise. “Eskom is too important to the economy to be allowed to fail. If Eskom fails, the whole country fails, and government cannot allow that,” said energy analyst Chris Yelland.

Due to the abovementioned shortfalls and strains on South Africa’s budget, concerns have been raised as to whether or not Pres. Zuma’s promise will come to fruition. Pres. Zuma has also not disclosed any details as to how his plan will work, and many await Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba’s 2018 Budget Speech for possible insight into this.

Taken from the 27 January 2018 infographic on page 7 by Shaun Sproule
Photos: Shen Scott, Fezekile Msimang, Carel Willemse.

Written by: Ditebogo Tshaka
Originally published: