After massive protests, South Africa freezes tuition hikes

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A young woman holds up her fists as students march through the campus of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg on October 21, 2015, during a protest against fee hikes.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the latest news.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — For older South Africans, the dramatic scenes of students facing off against police in riot gear stirred a powerful sense of deja vu.

South Africa's parliament was the battleground. As Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene prepared to deliver a mid-term budget statement Wednesday, hundreds of students protesting a hike in tuition fees stormed the parliament compound gates, singing struggle songs and demanding to be heard.

"We want Blade!" they chanted, asking for Education Minister Blade Nzimande. Heavily armed police officers responded with stun grenades, pushing the students back in a confrontation broadcast live on national television.

The images drew comparisons to the Soweto uprising of 1976, when students protesting apartheid language policies were fired on by police.

Facing worldwide condemnation after this week's confrontation at parliament, South African President Jacob Zuma announced Friday there would be no tuition hike for 2016. The social media hashtag #feesmustfall has now been replaced with #feeshavefallen.

For nearly a week, students at some of South Africa's biggest universities had been protesting the tuition increase. Demonstrators shut down the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and occupied buildings at Stellenbosch University and the University of Cape Town. The protests spread to at least a dozen campuses around the country.

The main complaint was that fee increases of between 10 and 12 percent will exclude poorer black students who are already struggling to pay for a university education. Student leaders had rejected a government proposal to raise tuition 6 percent.

But the unease at university campuses started earlier this year, with protests against the lack of racial transformation, meaning, too few black professors and a white-dominated institutional culture.

Those protests managed to force the removal of a statue commemorating Cecil John Rhodes, the British colonialist, from the University of Cape Town. At Stellenbosch University, a plaque honoring Hendrik Verwoerd, a former prime minister considered the architect of racial apartheid, was finally removed, too.

It is against this backdrop, as well as a South African economy in the doldrums and persistently high unemployment, that we are seeing rising student activism on campuses. Since the first democratic elections in 1994, South Africa has been governed by the African National Congress, the political party of Nelson Mandela. Many of the ANC's leaders were imprisoned under apartheid for their activism.

But the ongoing protests have put in sharp relief a generational split between the students — so-called "born-frees," who never experienced apartheid — and the older "struggle generation" now in government, and increasingly viewed as being out of touch.

"They should have told us back then in '94 that they weren't fighting for the country," tweeted @lulu_luwela. "They were fighting for themselves."

While outside parliament on Wednesday the sound was of struggle songs and stun grenades, inside the sedate national assembly, the finance minister eventually delivered his mini-budget. Economic growth predictions for 2015 had been cut yet again, this time to just 1.5 percent.