Student protests: More than free education

<img src="bridge student protests.jpg" alt="Bridge student protests" width="300" height="225">

Students and workers unite (briefly) to protest for a free education

Student protests spread from Johannesburg across the country. The ostensible reason is the exorbitant increase in tuition fees. Fees are absurdly high, and readiness of the wealthier universities to meet the shortfall out of their own pockets proved the point. But if we look under the surface, we will find that there is more to the current crisis than meets the eye.

“Without consultation”

An interesting alliance was briefly embarked upon when workers joined the student cause, but alas it did not last. Soon disharmony about agreements signed without proper consultation reared its head, and the impulse to ‘protest’ was let loose like Shakespeare’s hounds of war once more. Already a culture of protest exists in South Africa, but has constructive debate become completely obsolete? Many issues around the fees freeze or abolition have arisen, and one had hoped that like with the Rhodes must fall campaign it would enable the narratives so necessary to a healthy democracy, that it would facilitate citizens becoming more informed about the forces that shaped our society, that a longer view of our history would inform the next step in a maturing system of majority rule, … but sadly the political rhetoric is becoming increasingly banal.

Violence and accusations on both sides prevent meaningful dialogue

Students burned tyres, occupied buildings and erected barricades at the University of Cape Town. Twenty- three students were arrested on charges of disrupting the peace and refusing to vacate a building. About 200 UCT students, workers and academic staff gathered at the Rondebosch police station, demanding that they too be detained in solidarity.

“They will probably throw stun grenades at you and fire rubber bullets but do not disperse!” shouted one of the leaders, Dudu Ndlovu, over a loudhailer. If this is not provoking violence, what is?  Duly the police fired stun grenades to disperse protesters at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. Stellenbosch University authorities obtained a court interdict to bar protests, to allow the students to write exams without interruption. At Wits University in Johannesburg, vehicles driving onto campus were overturned. Some examinations could not take place; work was disrupted everywhere on campus.

Points of view

  • Students say the high fees further disadvantage black learners in Africa’s most advanced economy who had little access to universities during decades of white apartheid rule.
  • Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande says that each university catered for its own finances and that the government could not afford to provide free education for poor students.
  • University administrators say without much bigger subsidies from government they have no option but to raise fees to maintain academic standards. Also, that the weaker rand currency makes library books, journals and electronic research equipment priced in dollars, very expensive.

What nobody is saying

  • The ANC/Government representatives have hijacked the student cause. While agreeing with the protesters (and so ensuring votes), they have not increased subsidies.
  • Students are aware of the fact that even with degrees they are not assured of employment afterwards.
  • University studies are out of reach of many students because of the inferior quality of our primary and secondary education.
  • No country under the sun, not even developed European nations, have such a high percentage of university students among their youth. Vocational training, practical skills, entrepreneurship and labour feature too. No economy needs, nor can it appropriately accommodate that many graduates.
  • Many white citizens of between 40 and 80 with university degrees had to pay off study loans, some well into middle age, or were (some still are) tied to an employer who funded their studies. 60% of Afrikaners were paupers after the Anglo-Boer war and extreme poverty rendered them unable to access education until well after 1948.
  • Our youth is despondent: Their families invest much hope in those that do get grants and go to university, or families impoverish themselves to keep youngsters at university, yet the young people see criminals flourish, and unemployment soar.

This struggle is far from over. The ramifications are only just beginning …