Protests Spur South Africa to Bolster University Student Funding

South Africa’s government bowed to pressure to increase funding for university students after days of protests that left one person dead.

The demonstrations erupted at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg after some students were prevented from registering because they failed to secure state subsidies or were in arrears on their fees. The university’s outstanding debt has surged to about 1 billion rand ($66.9 million) from 450 million rand in 2017, Zeblon Vilakazi, its vice chancellor, told reporters on Thursday.

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme ran short of funds this year after budget cuts were instituted as tax revenue plummeted amid the coronavirus pandemic. The government remains committed to supporting all qualifying students and money will be re-prioritized to allow them to register, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande said in an online briefing.

“Cabinet also agreed that a comprehensive review of the student funding policy of government is urgently required,” he said. “Government is very concerned about the issue of growing student debt in the system, as are the universities. This is an issue that will also be considered as part of the policy review.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa called for an investigation into the death of a bystander who was allegedly killed by police during the demonstrations on Wednesday.

“While our people were protesting peacefully, there was overreach, it seemed like that, by the police,” he told traditional leaders in Cape Town. “Those who acted beyond what they were meant to do must be dealt with in accordance with our laws.”

Students took their protest to the ruling African National Congress’s Johannesburg headquarters on Thursday. The party’s secretary-general, Ace Magashule, urged them to stick to their demands and extend their protests to other universities because the government had committed to providing them with free education.

Students protested en masse in 2016 and 2017 to pressure the government into providing free tertiary education, sparking violent clashes with the police. Then-President Jacob Zuma bowed to their demands on the eve of relinquishing the presidency of the ANC, forcing the Treasury to come up with the money -- which hadn’t been budgeted for.

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