Beyond the university crisis: the challenge in South Africa today

Protest at the University of Cape Town calling for student fees and debts to be lowered, one of a number of such protests across South Africa on Oct. 20, 2015. Photo by Discott

To understand the tertiary education crisis in South Africa we need to look beyond the television footage and the rhetoric and the preconceptions of our own cultures. We live in an era where news is reduced to sound-bites and political analysis rarely moves beyond the repetition of the obvious, and where all too often one reads events from one’s own context. In this rather lengthy column I would like to give America readers a deeper sense of the history, politics and economics of what’s at stake and how it fits into the wider "state of the nation."

For over a century tertiary education in South Africa was the preserve of a privileged elite within the white community. Until at least the 1970s, the majority of whites did not go to college—indeed the majority probably didn’t complete high school. They didn’t need to—racial job reservation guaranteed them secure work. Among black South Africans a tiny handful managed to study overseas (mostly in the early 20th Century); others were admitted to "white" universities under what was a quota system. As the demands of a country moving from an agrarian to a mining-industrial economy increased pressure on the state for skilled and professional work, the apartheid state created a handful of tightly-run black universities.


Students themselves pressured the state to expand education and desegregate universities. Initially coming from the predominantly white and liberal student movements in the 1960s, a dramatic shift occurred during the 1960s when student leaders like Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness movements created black student and youth organizations that saw the need not simply for educational reform but youth and student activism linking education to wider political and social liberation—the end to apartheid itself.

In 1976 the student movement had expanded into black schools. Protest action over education—with a view broader political liberation—culminated in state repression during the so-called Soweto Uprising. Even though Biko was murdered by the state in 1977 and the Black Consciousness movement was suppressed, a new grassroots movement now incorporating workers and ordinary citizens emerged committed to democracy.

During the 1980s, despite massive state repression, their protest actions combined with revived guerrilla actions of the African National Congress (to which the new movements were ideologically linked) brought the apartheid state to a standstill, in effect forcing the negotiated transition to democracy in 1994. During the transition and the subsequent two decades of democracy, the grassroots movements were absorbed into the ruling ANC party.

Two features of the transition stand out now as problematic, according to political analysts like Lawrence Hamilton. The first was the decision to adopt a party-list proportional representation electoral system. Instead of voting for parliamentary candidates, voters voted for parties. The parties would have a list of candidates and according to the percentages of votes gained those on the list would enter parliament.

This had two effects. First the M.P.s were in parliament at the behest of the party, not the electorate, and were subject to recall by the party, making them in effect servants of party leadership and not voters. Similarly, though each member of parliament was assigned a constituency this was effectively a legal fiction. There was very little contact between voters and their assigned M.P.s, and no chance of voters’ directly influencing public policy. In effect, voters were disempowered.

The second critical feature was the decision by the ANC to adopt a neo-liberal economic policy, albeit with legislation guaranteeing black economic empowerment. This was done arguably with good intentions: to calm the South African economy and ease foreign investor fears. It included a commitment to honor massive foreign debts incurred by the previous regime (loans provided to a regime against the wishes of the global community, which many believed the new government ought to have defaulted on). Some have suggested that an alternative approach entailing wealth redistribution—though locally and internationally unpopular—might have jump-started an already listless economy in a manner similar to what had happened in Asian tiger economies in the 1960s: state intervention serving economic growth. The cost of these decisions actually taken has become apparent. While BEE deals (share transfers in exchange for preferential deals with state sector) has created a new black economic elite the wealth has not trickled down to the poor.

The legacy of poor basic education and lack of transferable skills has further crippled the labor force. In an economic system that assumes workers are able to shift from failing to successful sectors in the economy, this has not happened. Instead it has generated massive unemployment and growing poverty, dependence on large sections of people on welfare benefits (often used unscrupulously by politicians to generate "votes for cash’") and pressurizing those with jobs to provide for unemployed members of extended families.

The impact on students in the tertiary sector is considerable. While the pernicious place reservation system in universities has been abolished and the number of students at these institutions has doubled in the last 20 years, state funding has not kept up.

Tertiary education is almost universally state owned and funded. An institution can only be recognized as a university by act of Parliament. The state subsidizes education because it rightly sees it as a vital national interest in promoting scientific knowledge and economic growth. But in effect the subsidies to universities have been cut, while pressure on universities to provide graduates has increased. To meet this pressure universities are forced to increase student fees, increase lecturer teaching loads (while also keeping up research output) and cut back on administration costs.

Which is where the current crisis in tertiary education arises.

Lower subsidies have forced universities to "outsource" administration, often to companies that pay low wages to staff, who in turn are reminded that they at least have jobs. While this is true, it is small consolation for those who barely eke out a living, something the student protesters recognize—not least because many are children of such workers.

The admirable expansion of tertiary education has brought in a largely hitherto absent student population coming from the poor, the working class and lower middle class. The problem is that this group (most of whom are the first generation to be able to get to university) come from families and backgrounds who cannot afford to pay the fees. (And as the fees continue to increase even parts of the middle class find payment extremely difficult).  

The state’s student loan system is poorly administered and sometimes arbitrary in how it assigns grants. As in many countries students on these grants face massive debt upon graduation, exacerbated by social pressures upon them. In South Africa, African cultural obligation to family is paramount. Many (I am tempted to say most) young graduates feel obliged to provide for their families, particularly if they are unemployed or poor.

To illustrate this point, let me give an example I know. A young employed graduate (technically now middle class and earning a reasonable salary) is trying to pay back his substantial student loans. At the same time, however, he provides for his parents, his unemployed sister and her two children, and the two children of another dead sister. In short he is supporting four families (including his own) on one salary while having to pay back his debt. Though he appears middle class, he is in fact still poor.

Even worse, out of the same familial obligation, students on loans often have to draw on their very limited funds to support family members while studying. They are, to put it bluntly, in a near impossible situation, often getting further into debt.

After decades of struggle for tertiary education and political liberation, a new generation remains trapped in what is now a kind of "democratic poverty." Democracy has not delivered the goods. This failed delivery is not some naive cornucopia generated by unrealizable expectations but the failure to deliver a basic, dignified life. Increasingly it has become apparent to many South Africans that there are few avenues to change this situation:  they have no direct voice in parliament, the ruling party seems indifferent to them, and opposition parties offer few if any alternatives—in effect making the ballot seem irrelevant.

Protest has become once again the only way to voice opposition. More protests over service delivery and poverty have occurred in the last ten years than during the 1980s decade of struggle. Violence and the destruction of property has increased during these protests because, as one activist observes, "unless we burn something down nobody bothers to notice us": without broken windows or burning cars it simply does not make the news.

Perhaps now one sees why the student protests have happened the way they have. They are part of a general social malaise—no, a social crisis—that is about only superficially about tertiary education but more deeply about the state of South Africa today. We have lived for over twenty years in a rainbow-colored dream based on the fantasy that a change in government and the abolition of racist legislation, plus a little bit of economic tinkering and social engineering was enough. It isn’t. The rainbow has vanished. We need to rethink and act upon this crisis.

It’s more than just the question of free education. It is about how we renew democracy itself in South Africa.     

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