Shuchi Agrawal 2017-08-28
South Africa: the Riot to Education

Moscow State University of Foreign Affairs (MGIMO) hosted the annual BRICS Global University Summit – an event during which the participants shared knowledge and discussed the joint educational agenda of member countries. 

Some claim that South Africa is the lesser BRICS country and that it does not play a significant role in the group. Neither does it have a reputation for being an internationally known center for education. But is this fair? Home to one of the biggest student protest campaigns in the recent years, South Africa surely must have something to say on the topic of higher education. One of the summit delegates, Dr Mahomed Moolla, Head of the Strategic Partnership Office at the University of the Witwatersrand, where the protests began, shares his opinion on these stereotypes.

South Africa was the last to join the BRICs countries, and some people used to joke, saying that it was chosen over Nigeria just to retain the acronym. Would you agree on any level?

Well, we were just talking with some other South African people about everything that has happened this morning during the conference, thinking over the discussions that are happening, and it does feel like South Africa is a very small partner in BRICS. So we were joking that maybe the «S» in the acronym should be a small «s». But if you think of Africa, the two biggest economies are Nigeria and South Africa. And even though some people say Nigeria has a bigger economy, South Africa is actually the biggest. Also, in terms of population we are indeed very small compared to the other four partners. Nigeria does indeed have a much larger population then us.

South Africa is a very small partner in BRICS

So its economy is actually bigger than Nigeria’s? Because there does seem to be a slight disagreement about this. 

Yes, it is. It depends on the way you measure the economy – the Nigerians do it in a particular way, and then they claim that country is more economically developed but actually, South Africa is ahead of Nigeria. We have people who are involved in other BRICS issues in very diverse ways

As a part of BRICS, what challenges or difficulties does South Africa face?

Well, for one thing, we are so far away from Russia, India and China. We were actually surprised to hear about Brazil taking part in a lot of BRICS activities and projects related to education and they are just as far away as we are. So, to a certain extent, we think that our government is not coordinating the efforts of the country in terms of BRICS cooperation in educational matters. Of course, we have people who are involved in other BRICS issues in very diverse ways.

We were the last country to join the BRICS

Do you feel that a lot has changed in the sphere of education in South Africa since it joined the BRICS?

Not really. We have only began getting involved, and it is a slow process. As you know, we were the last country to join the BRICS. It is true that a lot of the South African universities have partners in Russia, India, China and Brazil, and we are slowly beginning to make more, especially in my university. Now there is a concentrated effort to find partners in those countries, so things are changing in that sense. We don’t see a lot of Russian, Chinese or Brazilian students coming to South Africa. There are quite a lot of Indian students, but we want more of entrants from all the countries of the group. We have a number of very good universities that rank in the top-500 in the world. What’s more, our education is much much cheaper than a Western education, so we don’t really see the reason why people don’t want to come.

Now there is a concentrated effort to find partners in those countries, so things are changing in that sense

In that case, how are you planning to get more international students to come to Wits University?

Well, we are planning to do some partnerships with universities in Moscow and in Saint Petersburg, based on a fee-waiver. So what happens is a student from, say, Moscow comes to Wits for free, without having to pay for the education or accommodation; all they must pay for is the air fare to get to South Africa. In exchange for that, we send one student from our university to Moscow on the same terms. We do this with other universities in Europe and North America, and now we’re starting to do it with the BRICS countries.

Wits University has quite a number of schools and faculties. Could you say that it has an orientation towards a certain sphere of knowledge?

Fifty percent of all our students are in the STEM – Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics education. We have a very strong medical school and we are quite strong in the humanities – international relations, sociology, and so on. We also do a lot of nuclear physics research with universities in Russia. I would say the technical sphere is definitely more developed.


As I know, the University of the Witwatersrand has just reached an agreement with the Student Representative Council (SRC) concerning the protests all over the country. Could you elaborate?

In South Africa universities are public, but the students still have to pay fees. Generally, it’s the middle class and the richer people who can go to university, so people from families with lower income have to depend on scholarships. Our academic year starts in January and ends in December and at this time of the year people are planning their budget. Most universities decided to raise the education fees by about 10,5%, while the inflation rate is only 6%, and the students at Wits just wouldn’t have it. They started the movement, followed immediately by the University of Cape Town and then others. Another issue for them is that roughly 10 years ago the universities started outsourcing workers like gardeners, cleaners, security and so on. What happened was they were fired from the universities and then got hired by another company, which now provides these services to the university. The problem is that these workers lost a lot of their benefits, for example, the children of the staff could study for free. Now they cannot do that because they are technically no longer employed by the university. Apart from that, the universities haven’t really transformed during the 21 years of democracy in the country. The curriculum hasn’t changed, the professoriate isn’t being transformed, and there are still more white professors than black. All in all, there are five main points they are protesting about: the fees, the outsourcing, racial issues, the curriculum and the way the university is actually controlled. The students want to have more say in the way everything is ran, more representation in the council. And right now only one issue is solved – the fee issue: studies were resumed on Wednesday. The final exams start next week so students decided to take them now instead of losing the whole year. But even though they will come to class, they are still set on fighting for the other issues.

This is the biggest student protest in South Africa in all the 21 years of democracy. Would you say that it shows that higher education is more important now than it was before, a bigger issue?

Not only that. First of all it shows that students have finally realized that they have a vital role to play in the country. Up until a month ago, the students were very apathetic. You see, people generally assume that if everything seems to be going well, one doesn’t have to do anything. But now the students have come to realize their power. The youth of South Africa are finally beginning to voice opinions and their concerns about things.