South African Students Slam Minister’s Comparison of Protests to Soap Opera

35-year-old father of three Mthokozisi Ntumba was shot dead by Johannesburg police in early March when he strayed into a demonstration by students angry at austerity cuts to bursaries and universities denying registration to those who owe outstanding fees.

South African student leaders have condemned the higher education minister’s likening of protests that saw an innocent bystander shot dead by police to a TV soap opera.

Blade Nzimande sparked outrage with his comments during an online meeting with the South African Union of Students (SAUS) and MPs earlier this week.

“Every year, it’s like a soapie now, The Bold and the Beautiful, every beginning of the year there is instability,” said Nzimande, referring to the cheesy US tele-drama syndicated on South African TV.

Two weeks earlier police in Johannesburg shot dead 35-year-old father of three Mthokozisi Ntumba as he walked out of a doctor’s office onto the street amid a protest by students from the city’s University of Witwatersrand.

The protesters were demanding the university drop its policy of refusing to let students who owed outstanding tuition fees sign up for new courses. That followed austerity cuts to the government’s NFAS bursary scheme by finance minister Tito Mboweni.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s motorcade was later stoned as it drove past the protests.

“There is nothing ‘bold and beautiful’ about poor governance and lack of engagement in times of crisis in the higher education sector. There is nothing ’bold and beautiful’ about the exclusion of students from education on the basis of finances,” SAUS Secretary-General Lwandile Mtsolo said. “Protests and loss of life should never amount to a soapy for the minister of this sector.”

SAUS dubbed Nzimande’s choice of words “reckless, unnecessary and irresponsible”, and said he should sympathise more with students, given his dual position as general secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP).

“Minister Nzimande should know better that financial exclusion at the heart of student protests across the country has a negative impact on those who look towards education as a solution out of poverty, the poor and working class in the main,” the student’s union said.

The South African Student’s Congress (SASCO) also chimed in, slamming Nzimande’s “unimaginative attempt to make light of the situation”.

SASCO’s leadership said Nzimande was “no different from the backward and incompetent Vice Chancellors” who they accused of setting private security and the police on demonstrators.

The South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), a breakaway from the COSATU federation allied with the ruling African National Congress and the SACP, demanded Nzimande’s resignation.

“As a communist, he should be the one championing the realisation of free education, not mocking students for demanding what he should be doing,” it said in a statement.

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