An amazing thing happened in South Africa this month when the government tried to raise university tuition.

Students fought back. And they won.


A demonstration against fee hikes in Johannesburg on Oct. 22, 2015. Photo by Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images.

Over the past few weeks, thousands of students flooded the streets, voicing their frustration with a proposed hike in tuition fees. The movement gained steam when the hashtag #FeesMustFall started trending on Twitter. Next stop: some serious international attention for their cause.

The student movement became so vocal and widespread that on Oct. 23, 2015, South African President Jacob Zuma agreed to freeze tuition increases at public universities for the next year.

That's right: They fought, and they won. For all of you students in the U.S. (or anywhere in the world) facing a mountain of student-loan debt, this is a pretty inspiring moment.

The protests are about way more than just college costs, though, and we'll get to that in a minute.

Here are the 11 things you need to know about the movement (and why it isn't over yet):

1. It all started at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand (known as "Wits") after a proposed a tuition hike.

Students were outraged when the government proposed a 10.5% fee increase.

A young woman marches through the Wits campus on Oct. 21. Photo by Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images.

2. Protesters were particularly upset because they felt the higher costs would disproportionately affect black students.

South Africa may have overcome apartheid in 1994, but that didn't lead to economic equality between races. According to South Africa's 2011 census, the average annual income for black households amounted to roughly $8,700, which was about one-sixth of what white households earned.

The New York Times reports that tuition at Wits ranged from $2,400 to $3,500 in 2015. And some other public universities in South Africa are more expensive.

Protesters on the Wits campus. Photo by Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images.

3. There was a serious ripple effect, with classes at several universities canceled due to demonstrations.

The cancellations were especially disruptive because exams were set to begin in the coming weeks. Some universities remained closed at the start of the week.


4. The protests weren't always peaceable.

On Oct. 21, police fired tear gas at students who stormed the gates of the country's parliament in Cape Town. During a rally two days later outside government offices in Pretoria — the country's de facto capital — a small group of demonstrators threw rocks at police, and authorities responded with stun guns and water cannons.

Most recently, police fired stun grenades and arrested a student during a protest at Wits on Oct. 28.

Students from the University of Cape Town clash with police after they forced their way into the South African parliament on Oct. 21. Photo by Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images.

5. Three women are leaders in the protest movement — and are winning admiration.

The incoming student council president at Wits, Nompendulo Mkhatshwa, has been a leading voice of the movement.

"The youth have been saying that a revolution is coming, and indeed we are at the door of it if not in it already," she told Destiny Man, a South African men's magazine.

A series of three mini-profiles in South Africa's City Press highlights the work of Mkhatshwa alongside two other leaders: Shaeera Kalla, the outgoing student council president at Wits, and Jodi Williams, a political science student at Stellenbosch University.

“In social justice movements, most of the time leadership positions are hijacked by men," she told City Press. "We are turning the tables."



6. This is about more than just tuition.

In March, students at the University of Cape Town defaced a statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes and went on to protest until it was removed from campus. The goal? Student activists feel it's time to "decolonize" education throughout the country, and the current demonstrations are a part of that movement.

The statue is removed on April 9. Photo by Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images.

Photo by Charlie Shoemaker/Getty Images.

7. Youth activists want these protests to make history.

Students called the Oct. 23 march on Pretoria "historic." And with more than 10,000 demonstrators attending, they might just be right.

Writing for CNN, Wits graduate Basani Baloyi and researcher Gilad Isaacs compared the action to an apartheid-era youth uprising in Soweto, a black urban enclave in Johannesburg, where students fought a landmark battle for educational rights.

"Not since the Soweto Uprising of 1976 have this many youth arisen to demand the right to quality and accessible education."


8. The economic divide is a big part of the problem.

University fee increases are nothing new in South Africa; BBC reports that annual tuition hikes in South Africa range between 7% and 14%. But broader economic factors could be playing a part in students getting tired of those ongoing increases.

Since the fall of apartheid, the incomes of whites and Asians have grown significantly while black incomes have been "nearly flat," according to Pew Research Center.

Students from Stellenbosch University protest against fee hikes on Oct. 23. Photo by Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images.

9. The protests could provide a boost to opposition political parties.

Since the end of apartheid, the African National Congress has pretty much run the show when it comes to South African politics. Now, opposition groups are hoping to capitalize on the frustrations of protesters and make headway during municipal elections next year.

A sign outside the ACN headquarters on Oct. 22. Photo by Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images.

10. This movement has spread far beyond South Africa.

Supporters of the movement have gathered in London, New York, and even Duke University in North Carolina.




11. The students? They aren't done yet.

President Zuma announced on Oct. 23 that he would freeze fees, which is a major victory for the movement:

"Government understands the difficulty faced by students from poor households and urges all affected to allow the process to unfold to find long-term solutions in order to ensure access to education by all students."

But some students are vowing to continue their activism until the government provides free education to all South Africans.


Even if the #FeesMustFall movement cools down in the days ahead, this doesn't look like the end of youth activism in South Africa.

There is an enormous economic divide along racial lines in South Africa right now. And until that's been addressed in a more comprehensive way, young people will continue to demand justice.

Images courtesy of Letters of Love
True

When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

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