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South Africa’s ANC risks young voter anger in education fee row

Students boycotted classes for a week, angry over university administrators’ plans to raise fees by as much as 11.5 percent

Published: Updated:

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!”

The erstwhile liberation party of Nelson Mandela has comfortably won elections since toppling oppressive white rule 21 years ago, but is now losing favour 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 the Afrikaans language in schools, police this week threw stun grenades at students who stormed the parliament precinct as Finance Minister 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.

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.

But it has found little sympathy as it grapples with accusations of corruption and misuse of public funds, including a $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,” said Gary van Staden, an analyst at NKC African Economics.

“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.”

Divorced from the issues

Opposition parties have been quick to make political mileage, with an eye to municipal elections due next year.

Legislators from the radical leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) were ejected from parliament in full view of television cameras after trying to block Nene from making his speech until the university fees fallout was resolved.

The EFF won 25 of 400 parliamentary seats in a 2014 national vote, and has portrayed itself as the party representing the interests of millions of poor South Africans sacrificed at the altar of pro-business government policies.

It has also led public calls for Zuma to pay back the money for the upgrades to his Nkandla homestead.

The fact that Nene proceeded with his budget statement in parliament while students confronted riot police outside points to the gulf between the government and ordinary citizens, analysts said.

“It really gave the impression of a government that’s increasingly divorced from very, very real issues and grievances affecting South Africans,” said Anne Fruhauf, southern Africa analyst at Teneo Intelligence.

“There’s certainly a chance that this will come back to haunt the ANC at the municipal elections.”

Opposition parties are already making inroads in student representative councils that were previously the domain of the ANC, with the Democratic Alliance staging a shock win at Fort Hare University in Eastern Cape province this year.

Compounding the ANC’s woes, its ruling alliance with the Communist party and unions that have traditionally mobilised votes for the ruling party is looking shaky as they accuse the government of pandering to business interests.

Labour federation COSATU said Nene’s budget statement showed the government did not “have its antennae on the ground to pick up the edginess of the population and the dying pulse of the country’s economy.”

“We have seen nothing from the statement that points to government’s commitment to reducing unemployment, poverty and inequality,” COSATU said.