Academics can drive change

The protests last year were led by poor and working-class students and were primarily about economic and social exclusion. (David Harrison, M&G)

The protests last year were led by poor and working-class students and were primarily about economic and social exclusion. (David Harrison, M&G)

Each year, hundreds of thousands of students enrol at South Africa’s universities. Of the 60% of black African students who survive the first year, only 15% will ultimately graduate.

This is hardly surprising: these failed students come from an oppressive, ineffective public school system. Most of their classmates never make it into higher education and those who do come poorly prepared to the killing fields.

The post-apartheid educational system is not founded on what the poor and marginalised need.
Instead, as research shows, it is racial and class-based.

“Class” refers to the norms and experiences that come from living within a particular economic and financial resource base. It has great significance in a post-apartheid, but not a post-racial, South Africa – in education as in all realms.

Access to basic shelter, adequate food and clothing and decent schooling empower or disadvantage people. There have been attempts to provide redress to previously disadvantaged South Africans, such as social grants, the provision of low-cost housing and the introduction of free schools. But these have proved insufficient to remedy their continued economic exclusion.

This, then, is the unchanging element of pre- and post-1994 South Africa: black youths’ chances remain significantly lower than those of whites.

What role can academics and universities play in changing this? And might they finally be spurred into action by the student protests that marked 2015, which, we would argue, are a class struggle.

Education is unequal at all levels. There is increasing racial segregation at schools and universities. Higher education is increasingly racially stratified, and it is particularly apparent in the concentration of black and coloured students at historically disadvantaged universities. Most white students attend the previously advantaged universities, such as the English liberal universities of Cape Town and the Witwatersrand, or the more conservative Afrikaans institutions such as Stellenbosch and Pretoria.

Those universities catered almost exclusively to the white minority until 1994. They occupy top positions in local and international research rankings, which stems from their obtaining the lion’s share of the research funding from statutory bodies such as the National Research Foundation.

They also charge much higher fees than the universities that were built exclusively for blacks during the apartheid era. This maintains the class structure of apartheid society.

It is logical that universities that charge higher fees are able to provide a higher quality of education.

But the status quo has been disrupted. In 2015, something shifted inexorably at South African universities. Students protested against institutions’ language policies, high fees, structural inequalities and colonial symbols.

It was poor and working-class youths who drove the protests, a clear indication that it is a class struggle.

This is further emphasised by the fact that most students who protest are black. Race and class lie at the heart of opposition to the existing, exclusive university system.

But racism and class are largely excluded from any understanding of the current youth resistance in higher education. This is possibly because the education system has distributed relatively petty advantages in the working class with limited scholarships and loans. It also allows entry to elite, predominantly white institutions based on academic achievement.

This disorganises the working class and allows the capitalist democracy to exploit the majority of poor youth more effectively.

Modern forms of class prejudice are invisible even to the perpetrators, who remain unconvinced of the class struggle of black youth. They dismiss it as unruly behaviour and lacking respect for the new “progressive” order governing universities. Protesters are berated for not understanding universities’ financial pressures; they are viewed as being insensitive to their peers who just want to get on with their education without disruptions.

Where are academics in all of this? We believe that the voice of thinkers in or, the academy has been discouraged and repressed. Many of the activists among us have been co-opted into the university bureaucracy and unashamedly drive a neoliberal agenda of colour-blindness.

Our silence has given consent to the deepening crisis of inequality. Once again, it’s the youth who had the courage to resist the system, just as they did during the Soweto uprising in 1976. They did so at great personal risk.

But today’s students should fear less the angry policemen with their rubber bullets than the racist academy that covertly discriminates against the poor.

The current black student resistance over fees, housing and limited intake clearly shows that higher education’s transformation agenda needs serious consideration. The professoriate, for instance, remains largely white and male, with more gestures at window-dressing than inclusion. Racism against black students and staff is prevalent.

It is also evident that, in spite of profound policy changes in higher education, a “new” racial structure is operating. This accounts for the persistence of racial inequality and must be challenged. Academics are well placed to lead the charge.

Universities and academics should be grateful for these protests, and to the students who took up the cudgels for change.

The protests should be viewed as a positive initiative. They represent a chance for the academy to generate ideas that will address the racial and class divide in South Africa rather than entrenching it.

Academics cannot abdicate their responsibility towards social change any longer. 

Rajendra Chetty is the head of research in the faculty of education, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and Christopher B Knaus is a professor of education at the University of Washington. 

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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