2015-10-21 10:48


Much has been written and said about the recent wave of student protests against fee hikes which have engulfed the higher education fraternity in South Africa. Phrases such as #WitsFeeMustFall, #UCTFeesMustFall, #BladeMustFall and even #HabibMustFall have trended on social media as well as in the conversations of many people in the country and across the world. The responses have ranged from unwavering support for the students, apathy, violence and ridicule.

Some have even criticised the students, accusing them of taking Wits Vice Chancellor Adam Habib hostage during the marches (a claim which both he and the students deny). Some have remarked that they thought the Wits and UCT students were “too sophisticated” to care much about societal injustice, let alone stage disruptive marches that have thousands of people rallying to their cause. One clueless commentator said that the marches were a precursor to other less noble marches like a march for pass rates to be lowered. Perhaps it is time for those who sit on the pedestal of privilege to sit down.

Perhaps the most disturbing response to the protests has been that of the oft-absent Minister of Higher Education Dr Blade Nzimande who after a long awkward silence on the protests came out of hiding and  stated that, in spite of efforts to increase government subsidies, there was now “no more government money” for higher education funding! His response was even worse than that of Prof. Habib who lacked the leadership acumen to see that leaving Johannesburg while student protests had halted all learning at Wits to attend an education summit in Durban was an insensitive and ill-considered move.

That faux pas made the anger against him escalate and left his reputation on tatters; with many saying that he should resign or be fired. Habib spent a considerable amount of time walking, sitting and engaging with students on the campus upon his return like a repentant Jonah after being tossed from his proverbial ship to Tarshish.

We are regularly told that there is a shortage of Black Accountants, Engineers, Geologists and other professions listed on the Department of Higher Education’s list of scarce skills, but alas; there is no more government money for educating students to fill those gaps. Parents of poor children countrywide encourage their children to pursue higher education in order to escape poverty, but Minister Nzimande says there is no more money for that. Corporate South Africa has an embarrassing underrepresentation of skilled Black professionals, an issue which can be addressed, at least in part, by increasing the pool of qualified Black graduates.However, “there is no more government money” for that.

There is no more government money for higher education funding, we are told, but the Auditor General reported that R30.8bn was misspent through unauthorised, irregular, fruitless and wasteful expenditure by government-in a single year. We’re told there isn’t money for the education of our university students but Blade Nzimande found enough to purchase two separate BMW 7 series vehicles for himself when he became a cabinet minister.

Funds for an inner city regeneration programme and a Dolomite Risk Management Programme were diverted by Public Works to the R246m Nkandla project when the project was running short of cash, but “no more government money” can be found to fund education. If there is no more government money, how can we afford to keep up with Arms Deal payments, an ever-expanding cabinet and are able to host the Commonwealth Games in 2022 after the Canadian City of Edmonton pulled out of the bidding process citing cost pressures?

According to some media reports, the universities in question are sitting on literally hundreds of millions in surpluses as they spend much less than they receive. Can they not reach into their own pockets to alleviate the suffering of their poorer students? It is also not helpful that the salaries of senior academics and Vice Chancellors at many of the institutions that are affected by the protests read like the salary report at the SABC-very high and in some cases indefensible.

It is a self-evident truth that the governments stated goal of lifting millions of people out of poverty will not be achieved through social grants as was claimed by President Zuma in last year’s State of the Nation Address. Nelson Mandela famously said “education is the great engine of personal development; it is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine…”. If only someone could remind Dr Nzimande about this. Once education and training have been provided, we can start speaking about the industrialisation and economic development that we are always being promised.

There aren’t many issues which have united the youth of the country across colour-lines and social classes like this issue has. The students fighting against exorbitant fee increases can take solace in the words of Mandela: “There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires”. If there is anything we should be saying to the angry students across the country on various campuses and in other spaces like Parliament, it should only be this: March on!

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