Growing Pains: An outbreak of our national disease: entitlement

2013-09-01 14:00

This week, with just a month to go until exams, the six-week workers’ strike at Walter Sisulu University took a turn for the worse.

With no conceivable end to the impasse in sight, the university’s administrator, Lourens van Staden, took the massively unpopular decision to shut its doors.

And shut out 27?000 students who have already been denied an education for the past month.

Many of these students come from some of our poorest communities, and thus have scraped, hustled and exhausted several options to get to school and stay there each term.

They are now expected to travel home and be ready at the drop of a hat to return in the event that the administration and the workers find each other.

Of course, students weren’t going to take this lying down, and so they stood up.

And got shot at and tear-gassed for it. I am shocked that after all we have learnt from public protests in the past few years, our police are still not being trained how to handle protests effectively – that is “leave your heavy hands and steel boots at home!”

What has not been a shock was the public’s delayed reaction.

We’ve been muted for weeks, and only when faced with the closure of the university, do we spring into ire, condemnation and even frantic action.

Ironically, one can assume that if this institution had been closed a month ago, both staff and students may have been back in classes right now.

Things would have been hastily resolved.

It reminds me of the matric results furore every year. Months later, we miraculously forget the truth – that education needs all of our attention.

I must admit that in this spirit, I was one of those supporting the imposition of a special privilege on education, that of an essential service.

Sadly, our fascination with our individual rights to protest seems to still overshadow our nation’s right to a future.

I have no doubt that education is the surest bet in bettering South Africa’s future. Walter Sisulu himself once said this.

But let us look at how we treat the future. What has driven staff to down chalk?

The difference between the 4.25% the administrator offered and the ­8% to 10% annual increase that staff demanded.

A huge gulf indeed.

Certainly staff have the right to a decent wage, which means ordinarily adjusting this to keep in line with inflation.

But in the period June 2012 to June 2013, inflation was recorded at 5.5%.

Ordinarily, shouldn’t both sides zero in on that?

Of course this isn’t an ordinary situation.

This is the same institution that just two years ago couldn’t afford to pay staff – that’s how far in the red it was.

You’ll remember that staff went on strike then, obviously believing that by denying scholars their right to an education, the rock would bleed out their salaries.

Shortly thereafter the university was put under administration and bailed out.

While there has been resistance to the new administrator, everyone had seemingly forgotten that the university was bankrupt. Broke. Kaput.

Today, the university still owes R200 million, much of which went into salaries then.

More than 70% of the budget still goes to salaries today, leaving very little for student aid, maintenance, new facilities or programmes.

Ironically, the university operates in the last third of South African university clusters, as per a 2010 report by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation, and yet pays salary scales comparable to the first cluster of world-renowned universities.

So what am I missing? Perhaps it’s the cash injection of R500?million earmarked for building new facilities.

I’m loath to defend the ministers or administrators in this debacle, but I am equally loath to let them shoulder all the blame for a situation that seems more like an outbreak of our nationaldisease – entitlement.

Sisulu’s name is synonymous with sacrifice for future generations.

If the staff and officials can’t suck it up, and sacrifice their first prize for the sake of their learners, then they might as well take the name off the door and shut down the future for good.

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