Thabo Mbeki weighs in on #FeesMustFall protests

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Picture: Theo Jephta
Picture: Theo Jephta

Johannesburg - Former president Thabo Mbeki has weighed in on the #FeesMustFall protests, blasting universities for not producing enough science graduates and researchers, particularly young black ones.

He was speaking at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth on Friday evening during a memorial lecture organised by the Kagiso Trust to honour late anti-apartheid cleric Beyers Naudé under the topic "conscious leadership".

Mbeki said the field of natural science was dominated by ageing white men, and universities were doing very little to change that picture.

“Our universities are not producing enough teachers. We are not. If you look at the science community – I’m talking about natural science – a lot of people in research in natural science are ageing, old white men. They are going on pension; they are going to die. Who is producing?

“Of our universities, who is consciously focusing on the matter of producing people on a non-racial basis who are going to replace all of this?” he asked.

The former president said that on the flight to Port Elizabeth, he and Max Boqwana, the CEO of his Thabo Mbeki Foundation, were drawn to a newspaper advertisement about the Medical Research Council giving awards to 13 outstanding performers in the medical field. All but one of those honoured by the council were white.

“We were looking at an advert in a newspaper, of the Medical Research Council, which is giving awards for excellence. I’m sure the people they chose are quite correct.

“There must have been 13 people who were being given awards... for excellent work in terms of medicine. But look at the colour – one Indian, 12 whites. They are not discriminating. The Medical Research Council is looking at the people who have the capacity.

“It’s your reproduction of apartheid, but which of our universities is doing anything to correct that?”

Mbeki arrived at the university’s packed south campus auditorium accompanied by the Nelson Mandela Bay metro mayor, Danny Jordaan. He was given a hero’s welcome by students and student formations aligned with the DA, ANC and EFF, who all sang pro-Mbeki songs.

He took part in a panel discussion that included Frank Chikane, who was director-general in the presidency when Mbeki led the country; Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University professor Ncedile Saule; Daniel Dube, the first president of metalworkers’ union Numsa, and student Samantha Beynon.

Mbeki said that while he supported the #FeesMustFall protests and students taking a stand, the issue of higher education funding needed to go beyond slogans. This meant asking hard questions about where the money to fund the anticipated shortfall – now that universities would not be able to increase their fees – would come from.

“That students will have no increase to pay in fees is fine. But the universities, to run properly, will still need resources. To be able to make sure that the students continue to be properly educated, there are the costs of residences, food and everything. That money must come from somewhere.”

All other societal demands also needed be funded in a time of limited resources, he said.

“We want our people to get land and develop the land – money. We want all of us to get free education – money. We want all of us to get health – money. We want to wipe out all the shacks and all of that – money. What doesn’t cost money? Where does it all come from?”

Instead of complaining about a lack of money, he said government had to come up with solutions for how it was going to unlock resources to address the country’s socio-economic needs.

“I hear people in government saying: ‘No, no, you see, we could solve these problems, but because we are a capitalist society, money is in the hands of rich people.’

“But you are government – why don’t you act on it?” asked Mbeki, to loud applause from the audience.

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