By Wendell Roelf
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) – South African President Jacob Zuma will meet student leaders and university authorities on Friday to discuss planned hikes in tuition fees that have provoked a week of sometimes violent protests nationwide.
Critics say the increases would further disadvantage black students, who are already under-represented in universities.
Zuma has not spoken publicly about the protests before and on Wednesday students stormed the parliament precinct in Cape Town to try to disrupt the reading of Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene’s interim budget.
Referring to plans for fees to rise as much as 11.5 percent, Zuma said in a statement: “Nobody disagrees with the message that students from poor households are facing financial difficulties and possible exclusion.”
Nene said on Wednesday that a process to divert money from other skills development funds to university education was already under way, but did not elaborate.
At least 15 of about 20 South African universities countrywide have been hit by the protests dubbed #FeesMustFall on Twitter. Classes have been suspended at the campuses since the demonstrations broke out on Oct. 13 at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).
Thousands of students from Wits and the University of Johannesburg marched through South Africa’s commercial capital and gathered outside Luthuli House, the headquarters of the African National Congress (ANC) where they handed a list of demands to the ruling party’s Secretary General Gwede Mantashe.
The students waved placards. One read, “Free education, tax the rich” and declined to be addressed by Mantashe.
Later Mantashe told reporters that the ANC would in future look to introduce free education, without elaborating.
In Cape Town, students marched in the city and engaged police in skirmishes as officers fired stun grenades.
“We will be meeting the President and his Ministers in Pretoria tomorrow and will demand decisive State intervention to ensure that students in need do not face a fee increase in 2016,” Max Price, the Vice-Chancellor at the University of Cape Town (UCT), said in a statement.
Universities say they need higher fees to keep up standards and they urged the government to find the extra money. The government, which subsidizes universities, said it could not afford the free education that students are demanding.
“We think the government will ultimately have to accede to either no fee hikes for next year,” Peter Attard Montalto, emerging markets economist at Nomura said in a note.
(Additional reporting by TJ Strydom in Johannesburg; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Angus MacSwan)