South Africa's universities have been gripped by endless student strikes following the proposed 2016 hike in study fees.
This could be the worst nightmare since the dawn of democracy in 1994.
The ongoing strikes, it is feared, could impact on the ranking and research output going forward as universities will be forced to reduce investments into research.
The protests, especially at the University of the Witwatersrand, intensified at a time when the Department of Higher Education and Training was hosting the Higher Education Summit at Inkosi Albert Luthuli ICC in Durban last week.
Students protests have since gained traction across the board with some leading social characters showing their support on twitter.
Politicians have also taken advantage of the protests to demonise the ruling party's leader Jacob Zuma. Democratic Alliance's leader Mmusi Maimane has called for free education, this could be the much needed political rhetoric going into the local government elections of 2016.
According to the department, the summit was meant to review progress made regarding transformation within the sector.
“The aim of this Summit is to bring together key stakeholders in for a critical dialogue on the higher education system,” said Dr Blade Nzimande, Higher Education Minister in a statement.
“Importantly, the Summit will provide the space for re-imagining higher education transformation, tackling the difficult issues that are currently explosive on our campuses and build a vision for what a South African university should look like today and in the future,” Nzimande is reported to have said.
Nzimande’s proposed transformation is what students are calling for and believe the minister is not doing enough to address the plight of students, especially of those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
University students are protesting over fee hikes of up to 11.5 per cent of which students are expected to pay 50 per cent upfront with foreign students expected to pay up to 100 per cent.
Interestingly, the fight seems to cut across racial lines.
Meanwhile, Wits students hackled the vice chancellor for ‘not sympathising with their plight’, even though he was black.
"For the past three days, we were left with insults from this man [Habib]. The reason we are here is because we love our parents and we know they can't pay," Former Wits SRC President Mcebo Dlamini was reported to have said last week.
Most students who struggle to pay their fees receive a cushion from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). But the body has also been failing to cater for all the needy.
Chief Executive of NSFAS Msulwa Daca last January said his organisation would need at least 20 billion rand a year to be able to fund needy students in South Africa. This leaves vice chancellors with a bigger burden.
This burden saw Habib cutting short his attendance at the Higher Education summit in Durban so as to entertain students’ grievances.
Media reports suggested he was being held hostage by students, allegations he vehemently denied and labelled as ‘nonsense’. Habib is not alone on this one as other chancellors across the country are facing replica challenges in respective institutions.
Rhodes University, University of Cape Town, Fort Hare and Stellenbosch University students are also reported to be on strike.
Other than fee hikes, universities this year also saw strikes over colonial relics such as Cecil John Rhodes’ statue at both Rhodes University and the University of Cape Town and strikes over NSFAS's failure to pay tuition fees for certain students.
While students engage in strikes, other countries continue investing in higher education. Such protests will likely slow the wheel of development for the country and region. This could explain why it will be sometime before Africa catches up with her peers in developed countries.