“Fees Must Fall”: What is going on in South Africa?

Student protests turn violent and a priest is shot by law enforcement. In South Africa, religious leaders seek to quell the growing turmoil.

In late September, while on a visit to South Africa, I quickly found out that almost everyone was talking about “Fees must fall,” in reference to nation-wide protests by students demanding free university education.

By the end of the first week of October, as I wound up my visit, the protests were already turning violent. In Johannesburg, matters got out of hand at the University of Witwatersrand (popularly known as “Wits”) on Monday, October 10. Confrontations between students on one hand and private security and police officers on the other turned into battles. Protestors hurled stones and police responded with rubber bullets and tear gas. Later that day, a dramatic incident that caught the attention of local and international media occurred—the shooting of Jesuit Father Graham Pugin.

Father Pugin serves as a parish priest at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, which is located in Braamfontein and which neighbors the Wits University campus. During the days and weeks of student protests, Holy Trinity served as a meeting point for various groups attempting to find an end to the crisis that has engulfed higher education in South Africa. Father Pugin and the community at Holy Trinity welcomed students, staff, and members of the community in Braamfontein who sought refuge from the chaos and violence. It was hoped that Holy Trinity would be a safe and neutral space where negotiations could be held. Until October 10, this was the case, with the conditions that students and all those meeting on the church’s property would be unarmed, and would not engage in planning of any acts of violence or destruction to property. According to Father Russell Pollitt, SJ, director of the Jesuit Institute in South Africa, the pastoral mission of Holy Trinity reflects “the four constituencies it serves—weekday attenders at Mass, homeless people, university chaplaincy, and the parishioners themselves,” and it “stresses openness and dialogue, rooted in a commitment to reason and faith, prayer and service.”

Back to the shooting incident: on October 10, as students fled police and scampered from campus and into the Holy Trinity grounds for safety, Father Pugin walked to the main church entrance, where police fired rubber bullets onto church property. Speaking to Radio Veritas in an interview, Father Pollitt related that a police nyala (armored personnel carrier) drove up and down the street past the church about four times. The police then attempted to drive into the church compound. Father Pugin stood his ground at the church entrance, in a bid to prevent any arms onto the property. Shortly after, a rubber bullet was fired, hitting Father Pugin in the face, as students watched in horror.  

The Regional Superior of the Jesuits in South Africa, Father David Rowan, issued a statement the next day, confirming that Father Pugin had received medical treatment and was recovering. Later, Father Pugin spoke to Radio Veritas and indicated that his injuries were “not as spectacular as they appeared on various video footage, and I have been very well treated by medical staff.” According to Father Rowan, the shooting incident caught the attention of the apostolic nuncio, as well as of the 36th General Congregation of the Jesuits meeting in Rome at the time.

In their statement, the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops Conference agreed that the “student protest has foundation,” but went on to condemn violence, looting, vandalism, and use of force by security forces. The bishops called for compromise, noting that “the huge financial demands of university free education cannot be found instantaneously.”

In 2015, the South African Council of Churches (SACC) convened a meeting of student-body representatives in an attempt to understand the challenges faced by students, and to mediate between the key stakeholders in the crisis. The president of the SACC, Methodist Bishop Ziphozihle Siwa, chaired the session. The SACC reported that the students summarized their grievances as follows:

·         “The Freedom Charter states that the doors of learning should be open for all. We don’t want short-term resolutions.”

·         “We need the churches to intervene with our parents. Our parents don’t understand that fees have not really fallen. We can’t be seen to be disrespecting our parents in arguing with them, and we need the church to bring this understanding to our parents, through the church structures.”

·         “Why are provinces returning money to government every year, of money not spent on infrastructure development and other causes? This money should be taken and paid to universities to offset the debt of disadvantaged students.”

At the time, Bishop Siwa said that “the church is of the opinion that all stakeholders can work strategically towards a resolution that will allow the universities to remain open, while the broader issues are resolved.”

The SACC pointed towards social and economic exclusion as one of the causes of the Fees Must Fall protests. This was echoed by the Catholic bishops, who in their statement said that they “are aware as a Church, of the inequality of opportunity for poor and competent students to access third level education,” adding that “what the students desire is more equality in access to good education at university level.”

In the meantime, St. Augustine College in Johannesburg announced that it would be offering 180 bursaries to financially needy students in 2017. The university’s president, Professor Garth Abrahams, pointed out that St. Augustine’s “is committed to the principle that those with ability should not be denied access to education because of financial need.”

From my conversations with friends in South Africa, and my rather narrow view as an outsider, it seems to me that Fees Must Fall is symptomatic of deep social and economic concerns that trace their roots to the apartheid history of South Africa. Perhaps Fees Must Fall offers South Africans an opportunity for introspection and wide-ranging dialogue. More importantly for the Church, to time seems right to engage more deeply with young people, in preparation for the 2018 Synod of Bishops announced by Pope Francis, which will focus on youth and vocations.


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About Allen Ottaro 28 Articles
Allen Ottaro lives in Nairobi, Kenya, where he is a parishioner at St. Paul’s Catholic University Chapel in the Archdiocese of Nairobi. He is a co-founder of the Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa, and is the former national coordinator of MAGIS Kenya.