White Students Form ‘Human Shield’ To Protect Black Student Protesters From Police

CREDIT: AP Photo/Nardus Engelbrecht

Protesting university students clash with riot police outside Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, Wednesday Oct. 21, 2015.

Riot police fired tear gas and stun guns at hundreds of students protesting university tuition hikes outside of the South African parliament building in Cape Town on Thursday.

“We were pushed back by police with force,” Motheo Lengoasa, a University of Cape Town student told the Guardian amid chants and songs from fellow protesters. “The stun grenade was shot right next to my ear. I still have the buzzing in my ear.”

“This looks like 1976 all over again,” he added referring to a student-led uprising during which police killed at least 69 protesting an education policy by the Apartheid government that would further limit opportunities for the country’s non-white students.

A protesting university student clashes with a riot policeman outside Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, Wednesday Oct. 21, 2015.

A protesting university student clashes with a riot policeman outside Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, Wednesday Oct. 21, 2015.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Nardus Engelbrecht

Last week, students at universities across the country began protesting proposed increases in tuition that could be as high as 11 percent. The country’s higher education minister offered to cap the hike to six percent earlier this week, but student leaders rejected the offer and continued to rally on their college campuses.

On Thursday, protesters moved onto the parliament to protest a budget presentation. Some even made it into the building.

The issue has galvanized support among students, many of whom are a part of the “born free” generation — those born after the end of Apartheid in 1994. Many of those protesting are doing so because they say an increase in tuition would disproportionately impact the country’s black population, which tends to earn far less than the white minority. Some have even said that the tuition hike would help to replicate the social structures of Apartheid.

Dylan Barry, a student at University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), where the protest began made this point in an op-ed for the South African news site, Daily Maverick:

The nature of the skills gap and and the nature of higher education combine to maintain the structure of an economy that is not radically different from the economy crafted by the architects of apartheid. Students from poor families, who remain largely black, cannot afford higher education, regardless of their academic potential or academic record, and enter an economy that punishes them for that very lack of higher education. It means that, beyond any influence of merit or hard work, poor students stay poor, while rich students will likely stay rich. Because being intelligent is not good enough if you are poor.

He said that 2,000 students at Wits can no longer afford to stay in school amid cuts to financial aid.

“These were students who had passed their courses, many of whom were going into the final year of their degree, almost all of them were poor and black,” Barry wrote. “They all had to go home.”

It’s because so many feel that the protests against tuition hikes are also a protest against entrenched structural racism in the country that student leaders called for white protesters to form a shield around black students during a demonstration on Wednesday.

The call was led by a group called “Rhodes Must Fall” which was at the forefront of bringing down statues of colonialists like Cecil Rhodes earlier this year. Shifting their rallying cry from #Rhodesmustfall to #feesmustfall, the group noted that it’s because of the privileged position South Africa’s white minority has had that police may have been less likely use violence against white protesters.

As it stands, the average cost for tuition plus room and board is about $6,800 — equal to the average yearly income in South Africa.

The economic divide between black and white South Africans has only grown since the country ended its official policies of racial segregation nearly 20 years ago. In 2001, white-led households earned nearly $17,000 more than black-led households, in terms of current exchange rates. A decade later, they earned almost $30,000 more.

South Africa spends 15 percent of its annual budget on education — more than most developed nations. Only about three-fourths of high school students pass the exam required to attend college, likely because of the poor learning conditions most black students face in primary and secondary school. A very small fraction of students and professors at South African universities are from the majority black population.