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It becomes clearer by the day that the South African government does not care about its people. Just take a look at the latest spate of student protests. They're burning, damaging and destroying the very infrastructure they need for the free education they so desperately crave. It is easy to write this off as good old-fashioned hooliganism, but these protests have not come out of nowhere.
In 2012 the minister of higher education, Blade Nzimande, promised free tertiary education for the poor. Education is the key to a better a life for many poor people. In a desperate attempt to secure support and rule the nation, the ANC made this reckless promise. It created a sense of entitlement among people who were desperate for a better life.
How did government think they were going to subsidise the tertiary education for hundreds of thousands of youth when a minority of South Africans are taxpayers? The budgets set aside for education and other sectors such as healthcare and social welfare come from taxes paid by citizens. Government's income is based mainly on taxes. The four biggest sources are personal income tax, company tax, value added tax (VAT) and import duties. If government increases personal income tax, households would have less money for their families. Increasing company taxes could see some businesses going bankrupt or at least discourage businesses from investing in SA. An increase in VAT will affect the poor the most.
It was therefore irresponsible for Nzimande to promise free tertiary education. Now that students feel they deserve what was promised to them, it looks as though they will not stop until they get what they want. Even if it means crippling the tertiary education system. It's clear, though, that government will not give in to their demands but a generation of restless, rebellious youth in South Africa could further destabilise the country if the concerns of the poor are continuously ignored. South Africa has enough to worry about without additional civil strife.
South Africa dodged a civil war when the apartheid government agreed to a negotiated settlement. But our country has yet to fully address the scars that generations of oppression have left behind. The damage done by colonialism and apartheid could not have been fully addressed in two decades, but the ANC did not exactly have time to waste either. The ANC has the chance to make positive changes in peoples' lives, and to build a legacy that future generations would benefit from but it continues to squander what little time is left. South Africa's youth could only wait so long before they began to get restless. These protests are actually a symptom of broader problems in the country.
Free tertiary education is not and should not be the main focus of a better life for the poor. Fixing poverty and giving the poor opportunities at ground level should be the focus. The failure and dropout rates at high schools in poor communities are ridiculously high. Government must fix the basic education system first. Furthermore, more than half of South Africa's 50 million citizens are living below the poverty line. There have been numerous protests by the poor for better service delivery and jobs. These issues can be addressed through a stronger economy. The government could set out an economic plan to encourage entrepreneurship, provide additional training for a more skilled workforce, educating people about recycling and teaching them how to grow their own food. There is a way to do this in a sustainable way and there are NGOs that already do this in some poor communities. But it needs to be done on a larger scale if there is ever a chance of uplifting the poor.
It would be nice to have free education, housing, water and electricity (or at least partially subsidised), especially for people who suffered great injustices in the past. However, with the amount of corruption taking place within government, the idea of getting anything for free is going to be just that – an idea. Supporters of the protests have said that free tertiary education is offered in other countries, so South Africa could do the same. However, they overlook the conditions in which free education is offered, such as higher taxes, a stronger economy and a larger taxpayer base.
In South America, Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, promised free education in 2014 during her election campaign. There have been occasional students protests since 2006, calling for no fees and an overhaul of the education system. Protests intensified after Bachelet's promise, and while they do have strong enough economy to attempt to offer free education, they also have large social and economic inequalities to overcome. South Africa has too many obstacles to overcome before it can think about offering free education.
Furthermore, offering free tertiary education at this stage - without at least fixing the economy and basic education - would only make it easier to entrench the present social and economic divides as students from privileged backgrounds continue to succeed. Except this time they'll just have more spending money. Students from poorer communities would still face challenges, such as high dropout rates, drugs and crime, while the government has to squeeze more money from taxpayers to afford the increasing number of students. It would be great if it could happen, but both government and the present generation of students just cannot seem to get on with things without setting their sights on their own feet and repeatedly pulling the trigger.
- Faatimah Hendricks is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer. You can find her on Twitter, Facebookand at selfwriteous.co.za
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