South Africa’s transition from apartheid to demo-cracy necessitated that all existing practices, institutions and values be rethought in terms of their fitness for the new epoch.
Our higher education system was not immune from this because it plays a central role in the social, cultural and economic development of our modern society.
But the recent events at Stellenbosch, North West, Cape Town and other universities have shown that there is strong resistance from some quarters to the efforts to redress these past inequalities. Our current education system has resisted transformation and failed to adjust itself to the challenges of a post-1994 social order. This defiance of transformation has meant we are still unable to respond to the new realities and opportunities.
Processes of education transformation since the 1994 democratic breakthrough saw many black people and other Africans, in particular, enjoying access to education. However, this has not translated into systemic changes in the interrelated contradictions of “colonialism of a special type” and the economic structure largely remains unchanged. Related to this is the persistence of poverty and inequality affecting mainly black people.
To achieve the goals and ideals of our nation, we should revert to the overarching South African vision for education, which is “people’s education for people’s power”. This vision developed a political understanding that community and education struggles cannot be separated.
The struggle against apartheid was transformed into a struggle for people’s power. In line with this, students and parents were no longer narrowly saying “away with apartheid gutter education” but saying “forward with people’s education, and education for liberation”.
Our call for people’s education means education at the service of the people as a whole, education that liberates, education that puts the people in command of their lives. The linking of learning to production and political action is key to the unity of theory and practice that pedagogy seeks to achieve. Unfortunately, improved access to education has not necessarily translated into this.
The vision of the people’s education for people’s power was to destroy the backwardness of the apartheid system. It was meant to be mass-based, to reach out to all the people of this country, be they young and old, in farms, town or cities.
It was not meant to serve the interests of the rich.
The transformation of higher education means the education system must reflect the changes that are taking place in our society. It must strengthen the values and practices of our new demo-cracy. This includes redressing past inequalities to serve a new social order.
We need to ask whether transformational processes underway are still capturing the spirit of our overarching vision. Are progressive forces still pursuing peoples’ power features, which seek to define the type of education for the new South Africa? If, yes, why are many African children still excluded on the basis of finance if it’s not serving the interests of the rich?
Why is it that only an elite few have access to education if it’s mass- based? Why is it not covering the cultural heritage of the people, and is not based on our experience as people? Is education transformation unifying people? If yes, why are we still confronted by inequalities along racial lines, and why do we still have so many drop-outs and unemployed graduates, the majority of them black Africans?
Is the transformation of higher education located in the context of the strategic objective of the national democratic revolution? If not, what is it that guides our national project for transformation of education and society as a whole?
Our argument is that the institutions of higher learning fulfil their role by producing engineers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, economists and politicians, who ultimately occupy strategic positions in the political economy in order to ensure its survival.
But they continue to represent the views of the hegemonic class, hence they are not above the class struggle. The call by our vision therefore attempts to change the status quo to allow the oppressed class and strata to popularise their views.
The diagnostic report by the National Planning Commission, which culminated in the National Development Plan 2030, identified some key challenges standing in the way of eliminating poverty and reducing inequality.
So, as we venture into a radical second phase of our transition, which calls for a radical economic transformation to liberate Africans in particular, we need to think out of the box and start to ask difficult questions to respond decisively to the immediate challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequality.
In line with the interconnectedness of education and social transformation, there is a need to revolt against the commodification of education and to create a mass-based education for all.
We need to radically change the form and content of the current model of co-operative governance into real organs of people’s power.
There has to be a healthy balance between the objective necessities for fundamental change and the subjective readiness of the masses to materially realise the essence of change.
This means institutional councils that place financial viability as the only way to access education at the expense of social development goals must be done away with.
The democratisation of education requires the revamping of institutional structures, such as institutional forums, with new redefined mandates and powers, appreciating that this is a phase of radical change, not only politically but also economically.
This means that these must be vanguards to guide the curriculum changes taking place in these institutions.
We should campaign for the establishment of a national structure of stakeholders to engage robustly and consistently with the transformation of education, as opposed to the conferences or summits that take place every four or five years.
Society should be mobilised behind the vision by making education a social issue, largely located in the hands of government and strategically located at the centre of service delivery by the state, as opposed to the current framework of institutional autonomy.
Institutional autonomy must be regarded as a stumbling block to the entire notion of people’s education for people’s power as it disconnects these institutions from the reality of our society.
Institutional autonomy perpetuates the exclusion of the working class from the benefit of education under the disguise of academic and financial exclusion. Any individual with deep pockets continues to access education, despite their academic performance. It is a different case for the have-nots.
We need to fight against the corporatisation of education and create people’s education through the democratisation of these institutions to bring about the total transformation linked to the national project.
The distribution patterns of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme should be transformed. This should include compliance with the NSFAS funding policy and should not give institutional discretion on who must qualify and how to distribute aid to students.
The pressing task right now is to campaign for the creation of student-centred institutions of education that appreciate that students come first. Student life and
wellbeing must be at the centre of institutional priorities. These institutions must create a conducive working environment, appreciating and valuing the contribution made by workers at the point of service, hence they must be compensated as such.
Zola Saphetha is the deputy general secretary of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union. The views expressed here are his own