by Iswamo Kapalu

Last year’s protests were a reminder of the power of the youth to unite behind common issues and halt a system that has long taken them for granted. The protests stunningly disabused South African’s of the view that its youth are an apathetic bunch whose dissent is incapable of going beyond the 140 twitter character limit.

The result of these protests was two-fold. First, universities and government (after crisis talks) agreed to halt fee increments for 2016 and establish a commission of enquiry. This commission was to engage all stakeholders with the view of establishing long-term solutions to the problem of the impermissible cost of tertiary education.

The commission hasn’t completed its work – a report is only expected in July 2017 – so government provided another short-term solution to the problem of inaccessibly tertiary education. Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, announced that universities, as they have in the past, must determine their own increases for 2017 but that these are capped at 8%. Students whose family income fell below R600 000 a year would be exempt from this increase. Government, he said, would subsidise the increment of approximately 70% of students who fall beneath the R600 000 threshold. Everyone who earned above that would be expected to pay their own fees.

As someone whose own newly-minted degree hangs proudly on the wall, above a bed that played host to many nights made sleepless by the question of where it is that those unfallen fees would come from, I am no stranger to this struggle. But after Monday’s announcement it’s difficult to see, from what has been reported, why these protests continue, or worse, escalate.

Because, while interim in nature, the decision seemed to address the interests of most parties. From poor and middle class students to universities (who warned that another 0% increase would cripple them financially) and government – which already spreads the contributions of a small tax base thinly.

The main objection from protesting students seems to have been that this is a short-term plan as opposed to the desired plan for the roll out of free education – which some protesters were expecting. However, any long-term plan would have rendered the work of the commission of enquiry redundant. And so the expectation and the protests emanating therefrom may have been, in that respect at least, unjustified from the onset.

However, the protests may be justified if the commission itself and other forms of peaceful engagement failed or if the terms of reference of the commission were problematic. Although no media reports have suggested this, personal conversations with students involved in the protests reveal that months of engagement in appropriate fora have only resulted in them being treated contemptuously by government and university management. Others among the students argue that the terms of reference of the commission are defective for investigating feasibility. They want a long term plan for the roll out of free education for the poor.

What is clear, irrespective of the truth behind the smoke, is that protests cannot continue without substantial damage to our universities, the trust between university management, government, and students.

The time has come for open and transparent engagement between all stakeholders – before no quality higher education exists to protest over.