On October 3, three entrances to the University of Cape Town (UCT) were blocked by students protesting for free education. At the upper north entrance a group of 20 sat in the road, in front of police and private security, to hamper vehicles attempting to reach campus.

The reopening of UCT follows #feesmustfall protests that flared across South Africa, for a second year. This was the due date set by Max Price, UCT Vice Chancellor, who said if the campus was not running, the university would have to close for the rest of the year. It could mean thousands of students expecting to work in 2017, including 400 of the 4,500 medical students, will not graduate and create a black hole for the economy. 

The mood grew tense as a male engineering student, who called himself Jerome, confronted them, calling them “stupid” and “only disrupting classes because they knew they would fail” the end of year exams.

The group of 20, swelled to almost three hundred as they left the tar and marched onto the colonnades. Across campus, they disrupted lectures and set off fire alarms.

Here they confronted students of the school of architecture, who were themselves meeting to address issues of fees, racial stigmatisation and colonialism, outside their building. They tried to intimidate them to join their cause.

This is a campus backlash against Minister of Higher Education and Learning Blade Nzimande’s announcement that ‘those who can pay, must’. The government allowed a cap of up to 8 per cent for 2017.

The government also wants to restructure fee payments based on your wealth: the poor below R120,000 wouldn’t pay; the government would subsidise the difference in fee increases for the middle class, or missing middle, between R120,000 and R600,000; while the affluent will pay.

Higher education is seen as a ladder into the affluent middle class. The World Bank reports that South Africa has the highest private return to tertiary education. Graduates are three to five times more likely than a school matriculant to find a job.

Academic Nico Cloete, lecturer at the University of the Western Cape, argues, of the one million students who enter school, about 110,000 will enter university and 55,000 will graduate after five years. But, 45 per cent of all undergraduates, and 70 per cent  of the poor on student financial aid, never graduate.

“So the issue is not whether there is enough money for free tertiary education, the issue is to fix the undergraduate university and the college systems, provide vastly expanded education and training opportunities, put in place a modern progressive graduate tax (instead of an outdated loan scheme) and stop raiding the treasury. So while the Fees Commission, and the media are looking at money, the issue is political and systemic.”

The road to reform will be long. It will take another three years to successfully transform university structures and integrate reform into the national budget, says Price.  UCT and Wits also claim that 90 per cent of students want academic activity to continue and these students are being held to ransom by a small group of ‘bullies’.

At the University of KwaZulu-Natal , students have taken to throwing feaces at security; more violent action ensued in Limpopo and the Pretoria University of Technology as students stormed campuses.

The University of Stellenbosch is also staring debt in the face. If it does not increase its fees its face a loss of R50 million in academia and another R80 million on accommodation.

Jacob Zuma, president of South Africa, established the Fees Commission this year to discuss the issues raised by university and student representatives.  Cloete, who is the Director for the Center for Higher Education Transformation, is one of the academics who submitted documents to the commission.

Meanwhile the frustrated students who bay for change want it now, and don’t want to pay any more money.