South Africa’s government has acted reactively to growing educational aspirations, rather than proactively, by assisting students
HAVING worked with students for all of my vocational life I have been privy to their hardships, troubles and tribulations.
Over the years in my columns I have warned that what South Africa needs is a serious injection intohigher educational funding if it genuinely wants to address the nation’s growing skills shortage and that “disillusioned youth may well become the Achilles heel of government”. And so it has come to pass.
Despite the initial cavalier reaction that minister Blade Nzimandeand others in the department displayed, the 2015 student protests for transformation and affordable education will take their place in the annals of South African student struggles, as the most significant force to change the face of higher education in post-apartheid South Africa.
The government must realise that to raise unrealistic expectations that cannot be delivered, is probably more dangerous than our current situation. So we need to tread slowly and think deeply before hastily adding a bandage to a haemorrhage just for political expediency.
Over the years, we were told quite unequivocally that the university is a business and not a charitable institution. Accordingly, under Professor Makgoba’s leadership, free education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal for all staff and their children, from academics to cleaners, came to an end, impacting on the lives of many. While this move made good business sense, the ramifications have had far-reaching consequences.
The development of a nation is dependent on skilled labour and the intellectual ability of its people. Education is not a luxury or the domain of the rich and fortunate. Itis a basic need. It is the building block of nations.
If countries like India, Egypt, Russia, Cuba, Germany and France can offer free to highly subsidised tertiary education why can’t we? The irony is that many political leaders in government today never paid for their education and in some cases, never had a formal education. They were either the recipients of highly subsidised apartheid education or on European sponsored scholarships during their exile.
For those of us working within the framework of First World rules for Third World problems the challengeshave been great.
A few cases come to mind as examples of financial woes that were deeply embedded in social problems. A swarthy middleaged woman dressed in formal black attire broke the queue of anxious students. She brought in her exhibits and sat down solidly on my chaise longue reserved for seriously disturbed students. Prayers, blessings and pleas intermittently interspersed her sad story. Her daughter, who sat quietly besides the matriarch, was in the final year of her studies as an engineering student.
She was awaiting financial aid, but the university would not allowher to register until she had paid her outstanding balance of some R5 000. As proof of her commitment to pay she had brought in a gentleman who looked like he had been coerced to be there. Her story was that this man was prepared to buy her house, but that he was experiencing difficulties with the bank in raising a loan. They wanted me to waive the outstanding balance and allow the daughter to register.
There are hundreds of cases like this of mostly black students with a smattering of white, Indian and coloured students who are struggling to pay up their fees. Many of those who are eligible for financial aid use up their meal and book allowances to support their families and, in some cases, to pay for supplementary exams.
When this happens the students go hungry and battle to concentrate on empty stomachs. Little wonder, then, that food is a major item on any and every meeting agenda, at social functions, seminars and workshops. To compound the problem further, there appears to be little creativity in managing one’s life away from home. Students often live a distance from supermarkets and with no mode of transport they are forced to buy at convenience storeswhere prices are exorbitant.
Family structures are weak and impoverished, hence many students struggle to access resources. Apartheid and cultural practices produced an aftermath of youth who have grown up with single parents, who do not know who their fathers are and who cling to their mothers’ low-paying jobs as their only source of sustenance and the only proof of their birth history.
When students tackle the administration over issues like financial aid and housing, they are agitating about real issues. Unfortunately, when they lose their patience they have a tendency to go on a rampage and cause damage to property and disrupt the learning environment for others. While this behaviour cannot be condoned, it is inevitable if government does not heed the voices of the people.
Over 21 years into our democracy, the tension between student leaders and management is much as it used to be because government acts reactively, rather than proactively. Did they not know that tertiary education was becoming unaffordable for the majority of our people with growing aspirations? Did students have to riot to get our attention? The government should spend less on defence and transfer the money into education, for the war does not lieoutside our borders, it is within.
*This article was first published in ‘The Mercury’ October 27, 2015
Dr. Devi Rajab is a respected South African
journalist and former Dean of Student
Development at UKZN and the author of