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South Africa's huge student protests, explained

South African students face off against police during Friday's protests in Pretoria.
South African students face off against police during Friday's protests in Pretoria.
(Mujahid Safodien/AFP/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Student protests over tuition fees have rocked South Africa's universities for about a week. The protests have been so large that a number of universities across the country were shut down. Friday's protest in the capital, Pretoria, attracted 10,000 people — the largest student protest since the famous 1976 Soweto anti-apartheid demonstration, according to the Guardian.

The protests were frequently met with riot police, occasionally equipped with tear gas and stun grenades. This kind of conflict is "not seen since the apartheid era," the Financial Times's Andrew England reports.

Here's where the protests came from — and why they've become such a big deal.

How the student protests spread

Demonstrators in Pretoria.
(Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The protests began at the elite University of the Witwatersrand (called Wits) in Johannesburg, South Africa's biggest city. On October 14, Wits students organized a mass rally against what they saw as exorbitant increases in fees: Students were being asked to pay 10.5 percent more in tuition and other fees, as well as 6 percent more in an upfront registration fee.

According to David Dickinson, a sociologist at Wits and a member of its council, the university felt it needed to raise fees to stay afloat financially. Dickinson, who voted against the fee increase on the council, blames South Africa's government for providing insufficient financial support to schools and students. Without more government support, he writes, many poor and middle-class black South Africans will not be able to afford higher education.

"The increasing reduction of state subsidies ... is turning Wits and other universities into de facto private institutions," Dickinson writes. "Elite not on the basis of intellectual ability, but on the basis of social class."

This anger over perceived race and class discrimination fueled the initial round of anti-fee protests at Wits. But similar issues affected universities across the country, not just Wits, so the protests spread like wildfire. Social media hashtags like #FeesMustFall and #NationalShutdown helped student protestors organize and share information across the country.

The government seemed to have no answer for this protest: Tear gas did little to quell their growth. By the end of last week, the New York Times reports, the protests had "spread outside the campuses, as students have leveled their ire directly at the government." Demonstrators "and police officers clashed outside the Parliament building in Cape Town, and students marched on Wednesday to the headquarters here of the African National Congress."

Where the protests are going

The demonstrations are pretty big.
(Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

On Friday, the government caved — kind of. President Jacob Zuma announced that the government would freeze all tuition increases at public universities.

"Government understands the difficulty faced by students from poor households and urges all affected to allow the process to unfold to find long-term solutions in order to ensure access to education by all students," Zuma said in a televised statement.

But it's not clear if this is enough; students may demands that fees fall rather than simply be frozen. And when Zuma failed to appear personally, protestors outside his office "tore up security fences, burned portable toilets and threw rocks at police," the Guardian reports. "It is unclear whether the students will put their placards away and return to class on Monday."

That's because this isn't just about one year of rising fees. It's about growing frustration with the African National Congress, Zuma's party and the dominant political force in South Africa since the fall of apartheid in 1994. Andrew England, the Financial Times reporter, puts the issue really neatly:

Many of those protesting are part of the black middle class that has emerged in the democratic era. But with the economy producing anaemic growth, while poverty, unemployment and gaping inequalities still blight the nation, disgruntlement is seen to be on the rise.

Against this backdrop, many black South Africans feel that not enough has been done to redress the economic and social structures created under apartheid that severely discriminated against blacks, while favoring whites.

Protestors on the ground echo these sentiments. "We’re bring robbed here," Thando Khumalo, a student at the University of Johannesburg, told the New York Times. "Why are we still struggling after we were promised so much in 1994?"

So these student protests are a big deal in their own right. But they're also a manifestation of a seemingly widespread belief that the ANC has simply failed to deliver for its citizens.