All 550 students (apart from one who had defected!) had been staging a sit-in protest in front of the administration building. We had submitted a petition to the rector on the Monday detailing our “demands”. These included the quality and academic standing of the academic staff, and the living and working conditions of the ancillary staff.
The rector, Professor JM de Wet, had refused all pleas to address the student body, insisting that he would only speak to a delegation of the student body. We debated the matter among ourselves every day of that week, until on the Friday there was a breakthrough. I was in the delegation that went to confront the rector.
As one might have expected, the so-called talks broke down. The rector issued a statement warning us to vacate the grounds of the administration building by 2pm. We remained. At 2pm on the dot, a convoy of police and military vehicles approached. Armed police and soldiers with dogs chased us. Many of us resisted and sat down where we were – to no avail. Under police guard, we were escorted to our rooms, packed into waiting buses and thrown out of the university.
Past and present collide
That was 47 years ago. It was at the height of the apartheid system. Universities were nothing but zones of occupation. Except for the date, watching the scenes outside Parliament on Wednesday brought all those memories flooding back. The difference was that the students being attacked by the police were from all race groups and we are today in a constitutional and democratic dispensation. Apartheid is dead. Long live apartheid. It was a case of déjà vu. It was German-born American political philosopher Hannah Arendt who said that the most ardent revolutionary becomes a conservative the day after his or her seizure of power.
I recall this episode in my life to point out that there is a crisis in our country. It is not just about higher education, but about our democracy and constitutional system.
In the preamble to our Constitution, it says we seek to “improve the quality of life of all citizens and unlock the potential of each person”. The Constitution is also founded on the “values” of human freedom, human dignity and equality.
Why, then, were public order police deployed to the precincts of Parliament? What is this obsession with security that means Parliament is no longer accessible to the citizens; that the Union Buildings, the seat of the executive, is out of bounds; and that ministers have to have an army of police minders?
And that the president has to have a bunker built at his private residence to escape ... what?
This is a free, democratic nation that is ruled according to the will of the people – yet we have a government that is afraid of its own people!
Yearning for a better life
The issue at the heart of the student protests is deep, pressing and relevant. It is about the advancement of all South Africans to a better life. This is a right enshrined in the Constitution. It is stated that government shall make higher education “progressively available and affordable” to all.
It is fair to say that the protests and upheavals at university campuses this year have been precisely about making higher education not just “available and accessible”, but also affordable. The protests have addressed the questions of racism on campuses, of Africanisation, of an alienating institutional culture for the majority of students, of the appointment and advancement of a black professoriate, of the language of tuition, and now, more stridently, the question of fees.
The correct way to understand the situation at our universities is to accept that all these matters hold together and cannot be separated.
My reading of this situation is also that the protests are more than just about the state of our universities. They go deeper into disillusionment about the condition of our country. Rising unemployment means that ever more university graduates are not guaranteed work even after graduation, and basic conditions of life such as healthcare, education, housing, safety and security are diminishing for many. All of this is happening while the rich get richer and those who are politically connected advance ahead of others through political patronage.
It seems fair to say that we are witnessing the first shoots of our own brand of the Arab Spring. It is my view that what we are seeing is more than just concern about universities per se. To narrow it down to this would be to underestimate the extent of the prevailing anger in society. There is, in other words, a crisis of legitimacy in our democratic system.
German-American Herbert Marcuse, whose voice had great influence during the 1968 student revolts in Europe, says that the vote itself does not diminish the distinction between the master and the servant. The vote only makes masters better masters and servants more servile.
The money is there
As former US president Bill Clinton would say: “There is money, all right!”
When he assumed office in 2009, President Jacob Zuma increased Cabinet, with its accompanying bureaucracy, by a third. Last year, upon his re-election, he added new ministries – not one of which appears to have been planned or has had any strategic benefit. The department of water and sanitation, for example, appeared from nowhere when Nomvula Mokonyane was rejected by Gauteng as a candidate for premier. As it now stands, all ministries have one or two deputy ministers. The result is a bloated public service made up of 74 ministers and deputy ministers in 47 government departments.
The president is determined to commit the country to a nuclear deal with his friends from Russia. Logic tells us that this will be unaffordable. South Africa has bid for the Commonwealth Games, to be held in Durban in 2022. That, too, is not affordable. The ANC has recognised and pays from the public purse more than 800 chiefs, kings and headmen. Why don’t those who want chiefs and kings pay for them? After all, government has entrenched the “user-pays principle” as far as e-tolls are concerned!
President Zuma himself has been a drain on state coffers. The unmerited costs for his Nkandla residence tell that story. He has become unaffordable.
The bottom line is that the student revolts we are currently seeing may be the tip of the iceberg. What next? Food riots? Will we say the poor must eat cake?
Conscious public engagement
Clearly, we cannot say that free higher education is not affordable. The state needs to get its priorities right and budget accordingly. There is no doubt there are competing calls on the public purse. Given that our country has a plethora of pressing social challenges, how are we to make choices between healthcare, basic education, higher education and social development?
How do we address the pressing challenges of pervasive poverty and unemployment? I believe we need conscious public engagement about these national priorities; it is a matter of public policy.
Pityana is a former vice-chancellor of Unisa