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Students from the University of the Witwatersrand protest in surrounding streets outside the campus in Johannesburg, March 10, 2021.
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South Africa's Wits University Students Are Protesting Rising Debt and Education Costs


Why Global Citizens Should Care
South Africa's young people have been fighting for the right to equal, affordable education since 1976, and what each of their protests have in common is that lives have been lost for a basic human right. The UN’s Global Goal 4 works to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. Join us in taking action to support equal education here.

Students at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, South Africa, are protesting over the financial exclusion of students with historic debts. The protests were met with police resistance on Wednesday that resulted in the death of one person

Over 8,000 students are at the risk of being financially excluded for the 2021 academic year. Many of them have been excluded from the university because of a lack of funds from the National Students Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). 

It was announced on March 8 by Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, that the National Treasury would be decreasing its contribution to the fund this year, and the country’s first year students would not be able to benefit from it. 

Wits was supposed to begin its academic year on Monday, but the university has shut its doors on students who cannot afford to attend. Following this measure by Wits, students have taken to the streets to protest.

The Student Representative Council (SRC) released a memorandum on March 1, demanding, among other things, that the university allow every single student to register immediately, regardless of the amount of historic debt owed.

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The protests started on Tuesday, with students using rocks and burning tyres to block roads across the Wits Braamfontein campus. During the Tuesday protest students tried to enter the Wits Medical School in Parktown, however Johannesburg police intervened, resulting in arrests and injuries after police fired rubber bullets at the crowd of students. 

“We have submitted a memorandum of demands, 10 demands, and they didn't even agree to one. We have over 8,000 students who are at financial risk and the university has no clear plan on how to save those students. We continue to raise money but our efforts continue to fall short,” said Mpendulo Mfeka, Wits SRC president.

Protests continued at the university's Braamfontein campus on Wednesday, where students were still on the streets fighting for the university to hear their plea. 

On Wednesday morning, a bystander lost his life after police opened fire against protesters using rubber bullets. It has been said that the man was walking out of a doctor’s clinic in the same street where the protests were happening and the police fired several rubber bullets at him. 

This is not the first time students in South Africa have protested over university fees, with protests ongoing for years as part of the #FeesMustFall movement — which calls for education to be made affordable and available for all. 

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In 2015, students across the country protested over the exuberant cost of tertiary fees, kickstarting the #FeesMustFall movement. They wanted universities to stop increasing tuition and as well as for the government to increase funding for tertiary education.

Despite the protests, the government announced that there would be no increases in tuition fees for the 2016 academic year, only for tuition to be increased by 8% in 2018. But since then the protests have continued to take place regularly as fees continue to rise with each year.

Following the events on Wednesday, Wits released a statement condemning all violence and asking students to remain “keep calm during this very difficult time.” 

Wits spokesperson Shiron Patel said that the university has now made a R10 million (about $600,000) COVID-19 relief fund available for students to register, and other resources to ensure optimal online learning. Students who have a historical debt over R120,000 ($8,000) will be able to register. 

“Wits has also gone the extra mile to help students register by making available a Wits hardship fund for R10 million. This is to help students who are experiencing financial hardship and who have a historical debt of up to R120,000,” said Patel.