South African students demand zero percent fee increase #Feesmustfall 2016


Zero percent university fee increase and eventual overhaul of the high education system to include free education

Time period notes

The campaigned slowed around October 2016

Time period

October, 2015 to October, 2016


South Africa
Jump to case narrative


Student Representative Council leaders in each university


Economic Freedom Fighters, Progressive Youth Alliance, South African Students Congress

External allies

Sports Minister Fikile Mbalul


South African Universities, South African government

Campaigner violence

Burning of buildings and cars, throwing of water bottles, vandalism

Repressive Violence

Riot police used stun guns, grenades, flash bangs, rubber bullets


Economic Justice



Group characterization

African University Students

Groups in 1st Segment

SRC at University of Witswatersand

Groups in 2nd Segment

Economic Freedom Fighters
South African Students Congress

Groups in 4th Segment

Progressive Youth Alliance

Segment Length

2 months

Success in achieving specific demands/goals

4 out of 6 points


1 out of 1 points


2 out of 3 points

Total points

7 out of 10 points

Database Narrative

On 14 October 2015, student protests began at the University of Witwatersrand in response to an announcement by the university board that there would be a 10.5% increase in tuition fees. On 15 October, students barricaded the gates of the university. Over the next two days, both student and staff members held a sit in, causing the eventual lock down of the university as the blockades obstructed lectures and activities. On 17 October, the University of Witwatersrand agreed to suspend and renegotiate the fee increases. Students and staff members who participated in the protest did not experience disciplinary action.

By 19 October, students at other universities across South Africa began to take action against their respective schools’ fee increase policies. In response to the University of Cape Town (UCT) announcement of  a 10.3% increase in their school fees, UCT students began a shutdown of the University, occupying buildings, blocking all entrances, and refusing to allow any vehicles onto the campus. The administration at University of Cape Town applied and received a court interdict, which banned the students from protesting and disrupting school activities. This did not deter students, and they continued to occupy the school’s administrations building. After the students refused to disperse, university officials mobilized riot police, who used tear gas and stun grenades to forcibly remove students. That night, police arrested over twenty- five students were arrested and took them to the Rondebosch Police Station. Thousands of students followed the arrested students to the police station and held an all night vigil singing songs and calling for the release of their classmates until they were eventually released in the morning.

Students at Rhodes University protested their school’s minimum initial payment, which required students to pay 50% of their fees before they could start classes. Rhodes students began a shut down of the university and barricaded themselves inside the university by blocking all entrances to the campus, and turning away anyone who tried to enter. Some students were armed with sticks, and the barricaded entrances were surrounded by burning tires. The students’ shut down of the school was met by police firing stun guns as they dispersed the students. As a result of the shut down, the university was suspended for three days

Students at The Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) protested and locked down their campus. Stellenbosch students locked themselves inside the administration building, which they renamed “Winnie Mandela House” and delivered a memorandum of grievances to university management outlining their complaints. The university officials also obtained a court interdict to remove the students from the administration building. University of Fort Hare students also gathered for a march against fee increases.

The Minister of Higher Education held an urgent meeting with authorities from multiple universities to address the student protests; they hoped to come to a solution that would stop the protest and resume academic programmes, as exams were fast approaching. On 20 October, they announced that all fee increases would be capped at 6%. However, students rejected the 6% cap and continued to demand no increases in tuition fees. Students were further outraged that the Higher Education Minister met with university officials without the presence of any students.

On 21 October, 5,000 protestors from the University of Cape Town, Cape Peninsula University of Technology and other surrounding universities in Cape Town marched on the South African Parliament. President Jacob Zuma and Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande attended, as the National Assembly was in session to hear the medium-term budget. As the thousands of protesters arrived outside the parliament building, opposition leaders inside (including representatives from the Economic Freedom Fighters) demanded the meeting be postponed and the national shutdown of the universities be addressed. Consequently, the Finance Minister’s statement on the Medium Term Budget Policy was delayed for more than 40 minutes. Several members of the EFF began to chant “Fees Must Fall,” which led to their forcible removal after they ignored warnings by the Speaker of the House.

Outside, a group of protestors broke through the gates of Parliament and amassed on the steps before being met by riot police. Some reports stated that the students engaged with riot police, throwing water bottles as they were dispersed by tear gas, stun grenades, stun guns and tasers. Non-violent protesters sung the National Anthem. After the removal of the protesting Members of Parliament(MP), the Minster was able to finish the budget statement and the remaining MPs were urged to remain inside or use the side exits when leaving the parliament grounds. Outside, the students began to chant for the President and Minister Nzimande to address them. Minister Blade Nzimande came out to address the students, but he was met with chants of “Blade must fall!” and “Zero!” After trying again to address the crowd using the powerful Apartheid chant of “Amandla,” meaning power, students responded “Vostsek” meaning get lost. The minister finally retreated back inside the building after his failed attempt at addressing the crowd. Because of the protesters a the main entrance, President Zuma and some other MPs left the parliament building using the side exit.

On 22 October, protests continued with University of Johannesburg and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University joining the efforts. All four campuses of the University of Johannesburg closed after clashes between students and security guards. A crowd of students blocked the entrance to the building of the Department of Higher Education in Pretoria. In Johannesburg, students gathered at the ANC headquarters at Luthuli House and after students demanded that ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe join them on the streets, he joined them and student leaders began to give speeches to the crowd. A memorandum which included the following demands were read to the crowd and given to the secretary general:

“The ANC must release funds to ensure 0% fee increase, The ANC must realise free, quality education, The ANC must provide resources for workers at institutions of higher learning so they can be in-sourced”

On the morning of 23 October, the students, the President, and the university vice chancellors met in Pretoria to find a way forward.

While the meeting occurred, students marched through the suburbs towards the city center. Police threatened to disperse the protest, but negotiations by student leaders resulted in the police escorting the protesters to City Hall. The student leaders also trained marshals in order to keep the march peaceful and in one lane of traffic, so that the whole suburb was not shut down. A crowd of over 10,000 people gathered outside the Union Buildings chanting and waiting for the President to address the crowd. Before the day was over, the President decided not to address the crowd but instead announced a zero percent fee increase in 2016 from the press room. While some students were upset that the President did not address them directly, the majority of the protesters took the events of the day as a win. A zero percent increase for the year 2016 would be a start in changing the financial structure of universities in South Africa. In the aftermath of the protests, President Zuma established the Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training to determine the feasibility of free education in institutions of higher education.

In the summer of 2016, Students waited for the announcement on fee increases for the 2017 academic year. Student Representative Councils around the country met and called for another zero percent fee increase. The Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training were late in submitting their report to the President and a decision had not been made on fee increases. According to the Council of Higher Learning,  a 0% increase was not sustainable. The Council advised universities to collectively support inflation based fee increases rather than separately negotiate with student groups.

Many universities began to make preparations for the revival of the Fees must Fall campaign. X made calls on social media for students to shut down universities, and student protests began at multiple universities, including University of KwaZulu-Natal, Nelson Mandela University, University of Cape Town, Mangosuthu University of Technology and many others. In response to the revival in protests and school shutdowns, Minister Blade Nzimande called for calm as a decision on fee increases had not yet been made. He also reiterated that decisions on fee increases were decided by  individual universities and the role of the government was to provide consultation and a framework. Protests continued throughout the month of August, while mostly peaceful shutdowns of lectures and buildings, at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, six vehicles and a building were set on fire by students.

As protests mounted, the President called for the Treasury to find the money to fund a 0% increase. The Treasury had not budgeted for 0% fee increase in 2017 and was not willing to take out loans in order to do so. Fragmentation in the student movement began as activists not aligned to the SRC began to act alone calling for the shutdown of schools and going on marches. The EF-aligned protesters got into a scuffle with SRC members upon their return to campus from a march. After much anticipation on 19 September, Minister Nzimande announced that fees for the 2017 academic year would be capped at 8%. Each university would individually choose the amount that would be increased. After this announcement student protests doubled as they called for free education. Vandalism and arson occurred on campuses across the country. Some journalists attributed the uptick in property destruction to the many universities that hired private security personnel to control and disperse the student activism. According to an article by David McGregor, the police stated at a protest that they would be taking a “no more mister nice guy stance.”

The protests that took place in 2016, were not supported by the majority of the student population. Many non-protesting students saw the protests as disruptive to those who wanted to finish their exams and academic programs. One Student stated, “I feel like we’ve lost the root focus and the core of the movement. We’re destroying the very places we’re fighting to attend.” Many students also did not agree with the violence they were seeing in 2016, and though they supported the cause they could not support the violent methods.

Unlike the protests in 2015 which united under zero percent increase, in 2016 there were several demands, including free education, the removal of police, cancellation of student debt, tampons and sanitary towels, and Wi-Fi for students in residences. The fragmented student leadership was unwilling to compromise and asked for the university shutdowns to continue until the government committed to free education. Many campuses began to hold lectures and exams at secured off campus locations.

The high cost of having to choose between finishing the academic year under the current circumstances or paying for another year of school became a heavy burden for many students, and the protest slowed, especially since no progress was being made.The students were unable to achieve their immediate goal of a smaller fee increase for the 2017 academic year.

On 16 December 2017,  President Zuma announced that, starting in 2018,  the government would subsidize higher education. He stated, "Having amended the definition of poor and working class students, government will now introduce fully subsidised free higher education and training for poor and working class South African undergraduate students, starting in 2018 with students in their first year of study at our public universities.


The South African fees must fall campaign was influenced by the Rhodes must fall campaign on the same campuses(1)


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Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy

Shakina Kirton 17/02/2019