Over the past few weeks, starting at Wits University and spreading like wild fire to other universities across the country, SA students have been locked into a bitter struggle against their universities over exorbitant, above-inflation and unreasonable fee increases. University councils and administrations hide behind institutional autonomy both to swindle parents and students through unregulated fee increases as well as to reject government intervention to regulate the fees across the board in order to make higher education both affordable and accessible.
What seemed to be protest action involving students from historically-white universities has caught the attention of the whole country, and even the international community, and earned the students the sympathy of the nation. The ANC Secretary General, Gwede Mantashe, has described the students demands as “reasonable and understandable”, and I would add, justified!
While others have opportunistically rushed to shift the blame for these protests to the doorsteps of the ANC and government, the majority of the students have been very clear that such must be placed right before their councils and administrations. To raise the fees in October just before exams, when the students attention is turned towards this all-important period, seems like a con-attempt to trick the students unwittingly to accept increments.
However, two quick reminders must be made in this regard. Exorbitant fee increments have been the order of the day in historically-black universities since time immemorial. Students at these universities are reeling under the heavy pressure of these fees and plunged into the whirlpool of debt that ties them for the unforeseeable future, which makes it impossible for them either to complete their studies or, if they do, to escape the debt trap and the vicious cycle of inequality which will, inevitably, tie their own off-springs.
Secondly, at these historically-black universities, fees are increased during this period and this has been the case since time immemorial. I remember when we embarked on a university shut-down at the University of Durban-Westville (now UKZN) in 1993 just days before exams precisely for similar reasons. What gave us a breakthrough was an agreement reached between the SRC and the university administration that there would be no increment on the registration fees, which enabled us to convince the students to suspend the protest action, sit for the exams and thus resume our protest action soon after registration the following year.
However, this year, students have unequivocally said – NOT THIS TIME! Not this time!
The fact is that we have not been paying attention to the astronomical rise in the university fees and we have been blackmailed by universities through institutional autonomy. We have doubled university admissions / access and more than trebled the NSFAS, but NSFAS has been bludgeoned by poor administration, weak funding formula, exclusion of the children of middle-class parents who nonetheless cannot afford university fees (such as teachers and other middle-level public servants on the grounds that they earn an income), corruption and a large part of the NSFAS funding pays salaries and other administration cost.
This has blurred even these massive achievements whilst the situation of the youth has been deteriorating. Many of these youth are compelled to quit their studies because of inability to afford university fees. SASCO had every year during the mid-nineties led national campaigns against financial exclusions.
At the same time, those who complete their studies are plunged into a socially-internecine debt trap they cannot escape for years after completion of their studies. Years of study are expected by society, families and students themselves to be an escape route from poverty and a licence to a better life. Unfortunately this is not so in our case. Whether you are financially-excluded or still complete your studies, debt awaits you.
When many black students complete their studies, they are expected to begin immediately to take care of their families, assist in the education of their younger siblings and still begin constructing their own future. Usually, it is their future that takes a back seat as they have urgent family legacy issues to take care of, otherwise their own conscience will never grant them peace. The vicious cycle of inequality is thus perpetuated and will surely affect future generations which are the off-springs of the debt-ridden generations.
What compounds this situation is the high levels of unemployment among black young people, meaning that even when you complete your studies, saddled with enormous study debts, you still have a few years of unemployment and a debt whose repayment awaits you nonetheless.
All these factors highlight the battering that black students in particular are facing and underscore the class and racial dynamics of the protest action sweeping our country. This is a legacy of apartheid-colonialism, and particularly of the system of white monopoly capitalism which has continued untrammelled during the past few years. It highlights the urgent challenges of our situation to answer the question, what exactly do we mean when we talk of racial socio-economic transformation! This urgent task of the second phase of the transformation cannot continue to be treated casually as a rhetorical academic exercise, itself an opium of the masses.
Education, and particularly higher and further education and training must feature prominently in that discourse. Students are demanding that the nation views and treats their education as an investment instead of a mere “expenditure”. To this, we must provide an unequivocal, bold and resolute response.
Certainly, the demand for no fee increments is reasonable, understandable and justified. We must support the call for a moratorium on fee increments for 2016 until a permanent and more sustainable funding solution for universities is found.
This is no populist call nor is this the time for populist and opportunistic calls.
Of course, there are those who see in these protests the opportunity to score political goals, but yet live comfortably with monopoly capital whose interests they happily serve.
Measures to fund university education must be found, and white monopoly capital cannot hide behind political opportunism and their hatred for this dispensation in order to shirk or run away from their responsibility. A wealth tax must be seriously considered. There come times in the evolution of societies when sacrifices and solidarity actions must be taken to advance the interests of society as a whole. For South Africa, that time is now.
Students would have fought and sacrificed in vain if something more tangible, radical and bold is not done to give effect to their ideals and resolution.
Comrade Malusi Gigaba is a member of the ANC NEC and Minister of Home Affairs