Heed South African universities’ desperate cry for help


Should a university education be free for all? Students protest university fee hikes at a rally in Cape Town, South Africa, Oct. 22, 2015.

WHEN University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Max Price addressed a Limmud session recently titled “Quo Vadis? The future of higher education in South Africa”, his body language showed a very worried man. Since then, the threat facing the higher education sector has worsened, with violent protests about fees and “decolonisation” causing university campuses countrywide to close.

The demand for free education at universities simply cannot be met at present. Neither the universities nor the government can afford it. Fees are a crucial part of what keeps the universities going, and with all the other urgent demands facing it, the Treasury cannot afford to fill the gap beyond what it is already doing. But it is a matter of priorities, and one positive effect the protests are having is to force the country to re-examine where it is going.

The Freedom Charter which guided the liberation movements during the anti-apartheid struggle stipulated that “Education should be  free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children”. But does this include university education? Says the Charter: “Higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit.”

The minister of higher education, Blade Nzimande, has ruled that for poorer students there will be no hike in fees for the coming year, and that for richer students the hike should not exceed 8 per cent.

Two decades after the fall of apartheid, the way democratic South Africa is failing its youth shames us as a nation. Not just at university level, but also the abysmal standard of basic education in government schools, which are indeed free, but a huge percentage of which are dysfunctional – which means that many young people who do make it into a university are ill-equipped to meet the intellectual demands.

The Wits employee – a cleaner, not even a student – who died last week as a result of rampaging students releasing a fire extinguisher in a hall at a residence stands as a symbol of how this country is self-destructing.

A slogan during the anti-apartheid struggle used by student protestors proclaimed “No education before liberation”, as they threatened to make the country “ungovernable”. It destroyed the personal dreams of a generation of young people. Now others are screaming “Free education‚ or no education at all”, making universities ungovernable – and the country by implication – and putting another generation at risk.

The absence of a national leadership with real moral authority means the violent mobs – who are a small minority of the total student population – cannot be steered in a constructive direction. The pervasive ethos in today’s South Africa that there is no accountability for breaking the law fostered by President Jacob Zuma and his corrupt cronies, tells students and the hoodlums joining them that they can do anything – including burning libraries, buses and other property, and attacking people – without consequences.

Price’s announcement on Sunday of UCT’s suspension of its academic programme, essentially shutting down the university – similar to what Wits and other universities have done – to ensure students’ and staff’s safety while trying to negotiate with the protestors, was a disgraceful capitulation. A declaration by the government of an educational state of emergency would not be out of place.

The desperate letters to university authorities from students who are being prevented from studying by the protestors, pleading for order to be restored, are heartbreaking. Some have been made public, but without the writers’ names to protect them from reprisals. Which shows how much rage exists in our society and how incapable our leaders are of channelling the enormous energy of this crisis to achieve something worthwhile.

Fingers can be pointed in many directions for the failure to deliver on promises South Africa made to its youth two decades ago, but the ANC and its corrupt leadership must carry a lot of the blame. The billions that have gone into the pockets of sleazy politicians and have been wasted through incompetency could have been spent on education, helping the poor and reducing inequality.

Price began his Limmud talk by speaking drily and academically about the mini-revolution which began 18 months ago with UCT’s #RhodesMustFall movement, to remove the statue of arch-colonialist Cecil John Rhodes from the campus, and questioned the university’s “colonial” architecture which conveys the message: “Only this is excellence”. As if our local cultures and achievements did not qualify.

The topic was thought-provoking, but avoided the real crisis. Then an angry man stood up from the floor, said he was a UCT graduate and expressed fury at the decline of his alma mater. Many readers of this column are also graduates of the South African universities which are drowning in chaos. Some of them run big corporations today, and should consider making their premises available to students who want to study rather than destroy.

If anything positive is to come out of this travesty, perhaps it is represented by the poll of students Wits has embarked on to gauge what percentage want to resume studying rather than destroying their university. It is believed most of them are desperate to have the campuses re-opened. Democracy – verified by the IEC – may be the thing that saves us, as long as the government will commit to enforcing the poll’s results. Democracy, after all, is what the struggle stalwarts fought for in defeating apartheid, not mob rule.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)

Who protects SA grass while ANC elephants fight?

OccupyLuthuliHouse 2

Is SA President Jacob Zuma an honourable man or a thief? His supporters and opponents in the ANC are battling for dominance like elephants while the country suffers. (Picture: Boikhutso Ntsoko)

AN OLD Swahili proverb reflects South Africa today: Wapiganapo tembo nyasi huumia – “When elephants fight, the grass gets hurt.” It refers to the damaging consequences for weaker individuals and groups in the midst of stronger forces, such as warring government officials and leaders.

Every day brings a new scandal in the clash of powerful factions in the governing African National Congress. One component is President Jacob Zuma’s camp of patronage politics, his friends the Guptas and other cronies, playing dirty tricks to keep themselves at the feeding troughs of state money and who don’t care about the liberation movement’s proud heritage; on another side are those trying to rescue the ANC’s moral standing as the nation’s saviour – various Struggle stalwarts, young people fed up with its failure to deliver on its multiple promises, embattled finance minister Pravin Gordhan, and others.

White minority groups such as the Afrikaners, Jews, Greeks and others are aware that all the elephants are strong and will not easily succumb. And knowing how badly hurt the grass can get in this fight, they are tempted to sit quietly on the sidelines, fearing that if they back the wrong side they will pay for it later. A similar stance was taken during apartheid, when many members of fearful minorities chose silence rather than publicly opposing immoral government behaviour.

While the ANC elephants fight, millions of ordinary South Africans are getting more desperate, without jobs, proper schools and other basic needs.

It is often hard to tell the good guys from the bad. Aside from the familiar major figures of the older generation, there are also younger people such as Mcebo Dlamini, an organiser of the campaign on Monday to occupy the ANC headquarters in Johannesburg, Luthuli House, with the message of getting rid of Zuma. Many people applauded the group, though it failed in its aim after being blocked by Zuma supporters amid threats of violence. But this is the same man who, as Wits University’s Student Representative Council president last year, expressed admiration for Hitler: “What I love about Hitler is his charisma and his capabilities to organise people. We need more leaders of such calibre. I love Adolf Hitler.”

And there is Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, who is no longer an ANC member after his expulsion in 2012 for “sowing divisions” and bringing it into “disrepute”, but remains tied to the struggle over its soul. Some people still say his expulsion was a gigantic blunder by the ANC. A few years ago he was laughed off as a buffoon. People said: “He couldn’t even pass his woodwork course in school.” Since then he has become a canny politician leading a growing political party and a major player in national politics.

When Malema condemns corruption, calls for Zuma to resign and demands the Guptas leave the country, he evokes cheers. But when he spouts anti-white rhetoric and says he wants to nationalise the banks and mines and expropriate land without compensation, and his party members behave like thugs, he evokes dread, particularly among urban blacks and whites – especially minority groups.

One member of the older generation who has been a disappointment is Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. Once touted as the man to take over from Zuma, he has been disgracefully silent while the president rapes the country. Ramaphosa looked undignified last Thursday in parliament when he triumphantly held up new government-sponsored, flavoured condoms intended to replace the older model which has been distributed until now. Meanwhile, South Africa is hurting, waiting for a real leader to emerge.

It is likely the battle between the elephants will continue for some time before one side wins or sanity prevails. The question is how to protect the grass – the citizens – while it is going on.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)