Heed South African universities’ desperate cry for help

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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)

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One thought on “Heed South African universities’ desperate cry for help

  1. It is the State that has short-served the students by dragging their heels on education policy in general so why are the universities under attack ? Surely the State should be the target of student anger, especially with Blade Mzimande having abdicated his responsibility for university funding and dropping it in the laps of the universities to decide on fee increases. Of course this was going to blow up – and all Dr Mzimande can rustle up is a wagging finger about the death of a cleaner as an example or proof of how dangerous the protests can be. Really ?

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