South African students protest in capital over higher fees

Protesting students sing and shout during a protest against hikes in university fees out of the Union buildings on Oct 23, 2015 in Pretoria.
Protesting students sing and shout during a protest against hikes in university fees out of the Union buildings on Oct 23, 2015 in Pretoria. PHOTO: AFP

(Bloomberg) - Thousands of South African university students converged on the nation's capital, Pretoria, on Friday (Oct 23) to press their demands for lower fees as President Jacob Zuma met with their leaders and college managers after 10 days of demonstrations.

Police fired stun grenades at stone-throwing students, while one group of demonstrators chanted "no violence, no violence" outside the Union Buildings where Zuma has his office.

Protesters set fire to plastic portable toilets and pushed them toward police officers, who responded with water cannons to douse the flames and disperse the crowd. Some of the students had boarded dozens of buses to travel the 54 kilometres from Johannesburg to the capital.

"We are going to wait for our demands to be met," Shaeera Kalla, president of the University of Witwatersrand's student representative council, said in an interview published by the News24 website.

"Every single day we wake up re-energised to fight the struggle because we really do believe the freedom of our country begins with free higher education."

More than 100 people have been arrested since the start of the biggest protests by university students since the end of apartheid that have seen classes cancelled and running battles with riot police. Thousands of demonstrators broke into the grounds of parliament two days ago as Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene presented a budget speech.

WIDESPREAD POVERTY

The protests reflect a wider frustration over the government's inability to cut widespread poverty and inequality two decades after the end of white-minority rule.

They also put pressure on the Treasury to find more money to help students as debt continues to climb amid weak economic growth and the threat of a credit rating downgrade.

The rand weakened 0.2 per cent to 13.4250 per dollar as of 1.48 p.m. in Johannesburg on Friday, extending losses this week to 2.6 per cent, the most since the five days through Sept 25.

"We actually had more of an impact come through from the protests rather than the actual delivery of the budget," Mohammed Nalla, head of strategic research at Nedbank, said by phone.

If the protests escalate and "it proves to be more socially disruptive, that I think is not priced into the rand currently and would probably predispose us to further weakness."

PROPOSAL REJECTED

Students rejected a compromise proposal from the government and university management to limit fee increases to 6 per cent, demanding costs be frozen for the next academic year. South Africa's inflation rate was 4.6 per cent in September. 

"The president will use the meeting to gain a first-hand account from students about issues that are of concern to them which affect their capacity to learn," Zuma's office said by e- mail.

First-year tuition at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where the protests started against a planned 10.5 per cent fee increase, range from about 32,000 rand ($2,400) to more than 58,000 rand.

The students "have put the issue of access to higher education for all firmly on the agenda in a way that no one else has been able to do in the last 20 years," Adam Habib, the university's vice chancellor, said in a statement on its website.

"We fully support their call for more funding. The single biggest challenge in our society is inequality. It can only truly be addressed if those in need have access to an affordable world-class education." Students at the University of London plan to march to the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square on Friday to support the demonstrations.