22/10/2015. University of Pretoria students protesting against the fees increment. Picture: Oupa Mokoena

Johannesburg - Like many young black South Africans, fourth-year law student Tiisetso Rapasa dreams of finishing her degree, the only chance she has of hauling herself out of poverty in a country where 50 percent of the youth are unemployed.

But the 22-year-old’s aspirations are threatened by the R42 000 she owes the University of the Witwatersrand, a sum she says she cannot pay – like thousands of her peers in Africa’s most advanced economy.

“If I don’t graduate, my contract with the law firm that I’m signed with may be revoked,” Rapasa said at one of this week’s nationwide protests in which students demanded a freeze on tuition fees – a demand met on Friday by an under-pressure President Jacob Zuma.

Around Rapasa in the crowd, fellow students, waving placards saying, “If the black child won’t study, no one will”, threatened to cripple the education system.

Born in the dying days of apartheid, Rapasa is a “born free”, one of millions of South Africans with no memory of the white-minority rule that ended when Nelson Mandela and the ANC took over in 1994.

But democracy has not meant an end to hardship for her in a country beset with deep social problems.

Rapasa has not met her father and her mother died 10 years ago, leaving her to spend her teenage years moving from one family member to the next until an aunt and uncle took her in.

Her aunt could not help her with her tuition fees, so Rapasa begged the Wits Law School for help. What she received was not enough to pay for books and groceries.

“As much as I work hard, I’ve just never been lucky with scholarships,” Rapasa said with a sigh.

When universities announced a hike of as much as 11.5 percent in next year’s tuition fees, it was the last straw for Rapasa – she joined thousands of other students, black and white, in protests across the country, united under the Twitter hashtag #FeesMustFall.

Despite large improvements since 1994, black students remain under-represented at universities.

Critics say the fees exacerbate the inequalities in a country where white households earn six times as much as black households.

While the National Financial Aid Scheme had R9.5 billion at its disposal this year – up from R441 million in 1997 – this was not enough.

The government budgeted R33bn for university funding for this year, but needs students to pay fees to top up its contribution.

The fees vary across universities, but can be as high as R60 000 for medical students – a figure well beyond the means of millions of households.

When the government aid scheme failed to pay his fees, 20-year-old Aviwe Koli had to drop out before the final year of his science degree and return to his family home in the Eastern Cape, the poorest province.

His father’s security guard’s income is not enough even to pay his registration fee.

“Now I’m looking for a job so I can save money and get back to university,” Koli said.

Rapasa was also among those failed by the government aid scheme, pushing her to within a whisker of dropping out of university in her second year.

“The plan was for me to sit at home and maybe look for a job,” she said. In the end, her uncle sold his two cars to raise the cash to allow her to continue her degree. For her, that piece of paper is priceless.

“My degree is my way out of poverty and breaking the poverty cycle that I was born into,” she said.