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Who is listening to whom?

Is the country’s long-term educational and economic future about to be sacrificed for the short-term political interests of one bristling moustache? In a hectic week Minister of Education Kader Asmal announced the new names of tertiary institutions due to merge in January next year (and of more to merge a year after that).

The stakes are now very high indeed. Years of alternative education thinking now focus on massive tertiary transformation working two months from now — or not.

During the 1990s the talk was all of hugely expanding the higher education system — “massification” was the buzzword: more students and staff, larger institutions. A catastrophic fall in the number of matriculants led to hasty rethinking. Now government policy is doing the splits: reduce the number of tertiary institutions (36 down to 21) via mergers and incorporations, but somehow increase the numbers of students.

And, policy says, increase the quality of graduates, many of whom currently cannot be employed anyway; improve high-level research, most of which does little for the material and other needs of the country; rectify racial and gender discrimination, but most of the mergers will not at all obviously achieve that — among other transformation aims that are impeccable.

It is certainly time, in education and elsewhere, to ram through concretely transformational plans. The post-1994 government promised to deliver — especially on pro-poor measures — but has failed to do so for too long and in too many sectors. So Asmal’s urgency cannot be faulted.

But the consequences of the radical changes he is spearheading will long outlive his tenure in office. And the still-unanswered questions about the long-term viability of what he is busily pushing through still loom ominously. Can we have an explanation of how two institutions (Medunsa and the University of the North) separated by hundreds of kilometres are supposed to merge, and why?

Why has Asmal done a sudden about-turn on technikons, agreeing that they be called universities — in a stroke obliterating the very commitment to quality distinctions he so endlessly trumpets?

When the vice-chancellor of the country’s largest university announces (as he did this week) that he cannot guarantee student fees beyond next year, except that they will be the lowest in the country, why is the government still so unresponsive to years of student alarm that escalating fees will deny access to the very people the policy is meant to promote?

And we report this week that Eastern Cape academics are “appalled” by Asmal’s announcement on new institutional names.

We also report on Vista University’s imminent court action against Asmal. At the centre of it is Vista’s exasperation over the fact that the futures of about 150 staff members, endangered by the merger, remain unresolved. A reminder, here, that grand policy involves human beings — their lives, well-being, families.

What damage would be done, other than to short-term political interests (there is an election next year), if institutions patently unhappy with and unprepared for their mergers were granted more time?

Concluding Asmal’s announcement this week, his director general advised the press to go and write that the Department of Education is “a listening department” and Asmal “a listening minister”. Who is listening to whom?

Cementing the peace

President Thabo Mbeki’s drive for peace and prosperity in Africa has often come under fire as a distraction from pressing problems at home. But, as we report this week, there are signs that it is slowly bearing fruit. Hot spots remain and, particularly in West Africa, fragile settlements may yet break down. But compared to four or five years ago, when it was convulsed by violent conflict from Angola to Ethiopia, our continent is enjoying a wave of relative tranquillity.

The installation of a new government in Liberia and the consolidation of Burundi’s transitional process are important steps in replacing “war, war” with “jaw, jaw”, to use Winston Churchill’s formulation. Perhaps the most positive portent is the progress made in peace talks in Sudan, site of Africa’s longest-running civil war, where two million people are thought to have died.

South Africa, imbued with Mbeki’s “African renaissance” vision, has been central to the drive for peace in Africa. But we should beware of chauvinistic chest-thumping over our role and take care to salute the efforts of other African leaders. A certain vainglory in government circles over the Burundi peace deal is known to have irritated the Ugandans and the Tanzanians.

Even more important is to acknowledge that signatures on pieces of paper are not enough to win the peace. With the United Nations lacking the resources to act as continental policeman it is critical that African states themselves commit monitors and peacekeepers to cement agreements. If the current uneasy and brittle peace is to hold and deepen, we need more boots on the ground.

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