Allister Sparks

A deep disconnect between leaders and students

2015-10-28 08:32

Allister Sparks

The student protests that have rattled the African National Congress (ANC) this month should not have surprised anyone. They are but the first indication of a deep disconnect throughout the land on the part of large numbers of people who feel their interests are being neglected while a few are living lives of plenty.

It is not just a white-black thing, although some are seeing it as such. But what I suspect is really rankling is the fact that the ANC, which came to power as "the people's party," is in fact neglecting vast numbers of "the people", from the rural poor to the peri-urban squatter communities to the millions of unemployed youth, while pumping the bulk of budgetary benefits to a cluster of insiders, from state employees to selected corporate businesses, BEE beneficiaries, traditional leaders and members of our bloated Cabinet and their families.

Nothing crippled the potential of our black population under apartheid more than poor education and their inability to own the properties they lived in. The two most fundamental requirements for intellectual and economic development.

Those should have been the two top items on the ANC's priority list when it came to power. But it has neglected both. Our education system is a national disgrace, while the vast majority of black people still don't own the homes they live in, nor the land on which those homes stand, whether they be tin shacks in squatter communities or solid homes they have built for themselves in the former Bantustans.

There are 18-million people living in those former Bantustans. Not one owns the home he or she lives in, because the land is held in trust by the pampered traditional leaders who can kick their subjects off at a whim. Nor can a widow have security in her home on her husband's death; she is at the mercy of the chief in one of the most grotesque examples of gender inequality.

Meanwhile, King Goodwill Zwelithini of the Zulus was allocated R51.3m this year for the upkeep of his household, including almost R3m for crop and animal production on his farms. The chairman of the House of Traditional Leaders gets R728 877 a year, and his counterparts in the provincial houses R599 505 each.

But it is the education issue I want to focus on today. Because the state of today's education will determine the state of our country's future. And I find it revealing that the cost of the government's VIP protection system is greater than the total amount the government spends on our universities.

It tells you, doesn't it, where their priorities lie?

A parallel problem we face is of a disconnect between the needs of a new era of technology and social media, which some are calling the Third Industrial Revolution, and a government locked into 1960s thinking and economic arrangements. The result is that we are falling further and further behind as time marches on.

We cannot attract investment, neither foreign nor domestic, because no-one wants to invest in a backward-thinking country that is hostile to business and individual enterprise. Therefore we can't create the jobs our young people need, or generate the tax revenue to educate them for the challenging future.

With its 1960s thinking the ANC regime wants to plan, control and do everything in terms of so-called "democratic centralism". Which doesn't work because we don't have the management and administrative skills. Instead, all our state enterprises are losing money hand over fist: South African Airways R30bn in 15 years; Eskom R9bn this year alone; Petro SA, PRASA and SANRAL together R17bn; and the ineffectual SETAS, which are supposed to train technicians on the job but don't do it satisfactorily, while gobbling up one percent of every employer's wage bill each year.

That's where the money goes. And now it is the student Peters who are being robbed to bail out the unproductive Pauls.

University intakes have doubled over the past 20 years, so the universities need more money. So, too, do the students of poor families need bursaries. But because the government has wasted so much, it doesn't have the funds to help the universities meet the costs of their increased numbers.

Which is why the universities had to raise their fees - thus triggering the student protests.

Blade Nzimande, the Minister of Higher Education, has proudly announced that he is allocating an additional R14.8bn to higher education and post school development colleges. But that is a drop in the ocean against the R51bn shortfall in the National Students Financial Aid System (NSFAS), which is the body to provide loans and bursaries to poor but academically qualified students at all the country's institutions of higher learning.

The result is that hundreds of students getting ready for their second year at university were told they had to sign documents stating that they owed their universities the unpaid fees. This has been one of the primary issues triggering the student unrest.

This grossly unfair issue confronting the poor students might have been eased had Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene been able to use the government's R5bn Contingency Reserve Fund. Instead, no doubt to his acute embarrassment, Nene had to reveal that the fund had already been completely drawn down to help the government meet a R12.5bn shortfall - the result of its 11% mid-year wage increase for civil servants.

So bright students of poor families are being left without bursary funding because the government wanted to pamper mostly already well-paid civil servants. Favoured members of the ANC's "insider group."

Meanwhile, I was fascinated to note a statement by secretary-general Gwede Mantashe reassuring students that free university education is actually ANC policy. He explained that it was adopted as such at the ANC's Mangaung congress in 2012, and a draft policy was presented to the Treasury for engagement.

"We committed to finalise policy for free higher education for all undergraduate-level students, and to ensure its adoption by 2013," Mantashe added.

So there you are. Like the National Development Programme, it may not be happening but it's policy. I'm sure all students will be delighted to know that.

FOOTNOTE: I was also fascinated to learn that our neighbouring dignitary, President Robert Mugabe, has been awarded the Confucius Peace Prize, China's equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize. In a statement announcing the award, the committee praised Mugabe for being "committed to the country's political and economic order for the benefit of the people of Zimbabwe".

The prize carries with it a cash award of 500 000 Remnimbi, the equivalent of about R1 100 000.

Previous winners include Fidel Casto and Vladimir Putin. Which leads me to wonder whether Blade Nzimande will be in the running for next year's award.

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