Max du Preez

Protesting students need our support

2015-10-20 08:12

Max du Preez

If you were one of the middle class people watching the student revolt on television and mumbled something like “bloody idiot, go to class and make something of yourself” then I urge you to think again.

We need every one of these protestors to graduate with a good qualification if we want South Africa to be a winning country one day.

We already have a shortage of good doctors, engineers, scientists, psychologists, teachers, academics, accountants and administrators.

University fees are too high for most students and prospective students.

A report commissioned by the department of Higher Education last year found that South Africa only spends 0.75% of its GDP on tertiary education. This is less than the average in Africa, much less than the world average and a whole lot less than the average in developed countries.

The government threw the report in the rubbish bin.

I must admit that I, too, was mumbling in my beard when I watched the hyperbole, the militant statements and threats and the singing and dancing at campuses.

Misdirected anger

But I had to remind myself that this was South Africa: nobody takes notice of your grievances if you simply hand over a petition.

If you resort to violence, of course, as a few had done yesterday in Johannesburg, you simply deserve to be charged in a criminal court and kicked out of university.

But the one or two incidents of violence do not delegitimise the whole cause.

What did upset me of the events of the last few days was that the students at Wits and elsewhere were directing their anger at the wrong address.

They blame the vice-chancellor and university council for everything, but it was the ANC government that had decreased the budget for students over the last few years relative to inflation and the huge increase in student numbers.

The apparent leader of the protest at Wits – not a member of the SRC, mind you – was wearing ANC regalia. On Sunday we watched President Jacob Zuma express his moist-eyed sympathy with students. On Monday the ANC spindoctor, Zizi Kodwa, joined students at Wits and told the media how cruel it was to exclude poor students from universities. The minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, said virtually nothing but talked about controlling the university fees.

The poor vice-chancellor, who has to ensure the highest possible standard of education with the money he’s been given, is now the pig in the tale.

That was blatant opportunism and dishonesty. Nzimande was warned last year and the year before that his budget for universities fell woefully short.

We need their activism

If Zuma and Nzimande’s government were less corrupt and ineffective and spent less money on self-enrichment and vanity projects, we would have been able to offer tertiary education at very low costs. (Nzimande spent R1.1m of taxpayer money on a car not too long ago…)

It is a good development that South African students are awakening from their slumber of more than two decades. We as a society need their activism.

I wish, though, that these students would understand that they would have to convince most of us, the rest of the country’s citizens and taxpayers, of their causes and the reasons behind them if they want to be really successful in achieving the universities and society they have in mind.

They cannot afford to leave the impression that they are petulant teenagers behaving as if they’re oblivious that South Africa is an open society and a constitutional democracy.

I’m not saying they have to behave politely like Sunday school children. Polite, friendly protests aren’t really protests.  I’m also not saying they should temper their anger, not at all. Violent behaviour is the cut-off point, though.

Few South Africans will accept it if these students continue to disrespect the rights of their fellow students. They are not the protesters’ enemies.

Disrupting classes and blockading campuses are simply unacceptable and selfish behaviour.

I have a very close personal reason why I know how crucially important it can be for some students to not be locked out from campus this week so they can prepare for final exams. For some, their future is at stake.

The campaigning students should realise that we’re judging them by their leaders. If they sheepishly follow some of these unprogressive hotheads that are threatening violence and insulting everyone that disagrees, we have to accept that they go along with that. And they will lose our sympathy.

The students will have to articulate their demands clearly so we can all understand. The Sasco and EFF demagogues at Wits – not SRC members, because the incoming and outgoing SRC presidents are women and thus apparently unacceptable to lead – that I watched on Monday afternoon spewing the one slogan after the next did not impress me one bit.

What does 'Africanisation' mean?

I still do not understand what exactly #RhodesMustFall, #OpenStellenbosch, #ReformPUK and other similar movements mean when they demand the “decolonisation” and “Africanisation” of the universities.

Sure, I get and strongly support that all students should feel confident and at home on campus. Sure, I get and support their demand that African history should be taught and African philosophers recognised – why on earth is that not done 21 years after our liberation?

But what else does it mean other than for the teaching of history and philosophy?

What does “Africanisation” mean exactly? That Wits/UCT/Stellenbosch become a carbon copy of Makerere, Eduardo Mondlane or Alexandria University? Surely South Africa and our different universities have our own peculiar versions of African-ness, just like these institutions have?

If the students want us to support their causes – and defend them when they come under attack – they should remain open minded and prepared to argue their points of view, rather than, as they have mostly done so far, call critics counter-revolutionaries, reactionaries or racists.

I found the vulgar name-calling of vice-chancellors like Adam Habib and Max Price from these ranks disturbing.

These youngsters are university students after all, aren’t they? Isn’t that what universities are about – market places for ideas and corridors of learning?

- Follow Max on Twitter.

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