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Past Editorial : September 2016

September 2016

1443651948496Tuition in South Africa: A Conflation of Economics, Politics, and “Naïve” Defiance

Damtew Teferra Ph.D.
Dr. Damtew Teferra is a professor of higher education, the leader of Higher Education and Training Development, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He is also the Editor-in-chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education. He may be reached at
teferra@ukzn.ac.za and teferra@bc.edu


The South African higher education sector has been in paralysis for a while and now engulfed in student protests

Financing higher education institutions is fraught with challenges around the world. However, nowhere in the world is this problem more pronounced than in Sub-Saharan Africa, save South Africa—until recently, that is.

The South African higher education sector has been in paralysis for a while now engulfed in student protests, including one under the banner of “Fees Must Fall”. The anticipated response to the “Fees Must Fall” protest finally came on September 19, 2016. Strikes on some campuses across the country escalated even before the conclusion of Minister Blade Nzimande’s speech.

The New Directive: The Core Components

According to the new directive from the Minister of Higher Education and Training, universities will individually set the fee increase taking into consideration effective operation, quality and affordability. The fee adjustment, while flexible, was capped at 8 percent and it is left to the respective universities to fix their fees.

The government has expressed a commitment to finding the resources to support the children of all poor‚ working and middle class families—those with a household income of up to R600,000 (c. USD 42,000) per annum—with subsidy to cover the gap between the 2015 fee and the adjusted 2017 fee at their institution.

The government ruling is along the lines of my earlier argument that those who can afford to pay for higher education, should pay—fees should not fall for all. This position should be vigorously espoused for the sake of the poor and the “missing middle” who otherwise subsidize the education of the affluent and the wealthy should fees fall for all.

Economics: The Numbers

In 2011, poverty levels in South Africa stood at 45.5 percent including upper-bound poverty line. (South Africa publishes a set of three national poverty lines—the food poverty line, lower-bound poverty line and upper-bound poverty line—as poverty measurement.) Poverty in South Africa is described under three lines: This translates into roughly 23 million people living below the upper-bound poverty line. More than 9 out of 10 (94.2 percent) poor people in the country were black Africans—a proportion that increased slightly from 2006 (92.9 percent) and 2009 (93.2 percent). The number of people living below the food line increased to 15.8 million in 2009 from 12.6 million in 2006,

According to Matthew Lester, a professor of tax law at Rhodes University, about half a million South Africans earn more than R500,000 (USD 35,000) per annum. Those households earning R600,000, the figure established by the directive, represent an even smaller number. This directive is visibly generous, in a country with an estimated 15 million households where many live under extreme poverty.

The new directive effectively provides support to all needy—and some less needy— households that can actually afford to pay. The figures, as generous as they appear, may however need recalculation for large household families characteristic of South African and other African countries.

Unbridled Ideology

In an ideal world where wealth might be fairly well distributed, the virtues of “free” higher education, “free” health care, and “free” accommodation” would be just. For instance, in Scandinavian countries, where distribution of wealth is fairly equitable, “free” social services, as education, health and others, to all citizens makes sense and are equitable. However, the politics of free services in South Africa, a country with deeply unequal society, systematically built by the architects of Apartheid, it is simply misinformed and self-defeating.

Thus a quixotic slogan such as “free education for all” may make sense in countries where the economic stratification is more just and the social safety strands more robust. Similar policies may also be relevant for countries that are either emerging from a massive national crisis or starting from a scratch. South Africa is neither.

Naive Defiance?

The relentless protest against tuition fees and fee hikes, which at times was marred by the depressing news of serious vandalism, may be justifiable in this unequal society. Now that virtually all these student demands are effectively met, continuing the strike on issues of funding may not seem to make a lot of sense. It may not be described as informed resistance nor could it be identified as defiance grounded in principle nor meaningful ideologies that address the needs of the poor and the missing middle.

The recent history of student protests has not however revolved only around issues of funding and tuition fees, though these have been particularly prominent since the realization of modern democracy in South Africa. Additional issues such as transformation, decolonization and others have been fueling the protests as well. While the “fees-must-fall” rally has been the high-pitch of the protest, these others have (so far) not generated the same level of sentiments or conviction.


As noted in my earlier article, the idea of free higher education, or what student activists have termed “#FeesMustFall”, is appealing. It is, however, inherently regressive in societies and countries where massive social and economic inequities abound.

The stated subsidy that includes households of such high income bracket (of R600,000), may not be economically tenable in a country where less than half a million households earn more than R500,000. Even more, should the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training Funding (which is expected to release its report in mid-2017) recommend a leaner provision, it may likely trigger another round of protests.

According to a BBC report on the new directives which quotes critics “this is higher than the 6% inflation rate, and will make university education unaffordable for many students.” Given the solid figures here, such criticism and reflections, may be without much meri

This article was earlier published on Inside Higher Education—World View under a slightly different title “Tuition in South Africa: Economics, Politics, and Defiance”



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