/ 5 October 2016

Equal Education: Students are aiming at the wrong target and inadvertently protecting the government

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#FeesMustFall protesters are aiming at the wrong target, says Equal Education general secretary Tshepo Motsepe. The call for free higher education should be addressed not to the university vice-chancellors but to minister Blade Nzimande, he told Ashleigh Furlong in an exclusive interview.

Could you describe Equal Education’s submissions to the Fees Commission?

First, we stated that we support the call for free education, and second, we stated that the crisis in basic education has a direct link to the crisis in higher education. Out of the 27 universities in the country you only have six top universities, our former white universities. The majority of our universities continue to be in quite terrible condition.

Free education should be for the poor. How do we get to a point where we classify a person as poor? We said that those who can afford to pay, must pay. In cases where a middle-class family is able to pay there must be a certain amount contributed by the state.

The current system continues to benefit middle-class students rather than poor students.

Very poor students must not be subjected to a loan. [They] must be afforded the opportunity to study for free and that’s what we mean by free education.

Who funds the poor for higher education? We said we need to talk about tax. The argument is that our tax base is small. How do we enlarge it? There needs to be a discussion with the richest 1% in the country and there need to be systems put in place by Sars to make sure that the current illicit outflows of money in the country are curbed so that money does benefit the country.

But also we then need to speak to corporate South Africa about the need to invest in a system that will prevent the majority of our people from having to access privatised education. We also raised alarms about what is happening with wasteful expenditure. Here we are talking about the nuclear deal, we are talking about the purchasing of private jets by the president, we are talking about the SABC, one typical example, who yesterday declared that they lost half a billion rand. We are talking about the financial bailouts, the money given to SAA over the past few years that could have amounted to an introduction of free education.

We said convert financial aid into a system where you can start funding free education for the poorest. In Chile for example, the student revolt in 2011 resulted in a tax reform to fund free education. Although there are more people paying tax in Chile than there are in South Africa, surely it can be done here?

At UCT for example, some commentators and students believe that a minority are preventing “the majority” from studying. There is also a lot of anger toward protesters. Do you believe that protesters are within their rights to prevent others from attending classes?

No, there is the right to protest, but they need to protect the rights of those who don’t want to protest. In fact, those who are protesting, are being protected by people who are not protesting. Every time they get attacked, it is not them who scream the loudest, it is people who are observing the injustices who say, “that is not right, allow them to protest”.

There is something different about the current student protest. There seem to be huge and very interesting divisions, the majority of them party political. You don’t have the same movement we saw last year of transgender issues being raised, of middle-class students also saying we are in this together. Also, super-rich students also saying we agree on the call for free education and the decolonisation of education.

Yes, there is a small minority. At UCT for instance, I was looking at the demands, they were saying “bring back the five”. Where is free education as the first demand?

What is also irritating is the targeting of vice chancellors. A person like Max Price or Adam Habib won’t give you free education, it is the state that will give you free education. Even in the students’ conception of who the enemy is, it is personal feelings that are actually leading the movement. Of course, Max Price and Adam Habib are also making mistakes, they are making this protest about themselves instead of speaking with one voice with the senate, university council so that it is not just the vice chancellor talking and trying to mediate.

The demand for free education must be put on the table of the state.

Blade Nzimande is not feeling the pressure. He is the person whom pressure must be put on, together with Treasury and the president.

The only institution that can deliver free education is the government.

What do you think of Blade Nzimande’s announcement of an 8% cap on increases and having households who earn under R600 000 applying for a subsidy from the government?

Under the current economic conditions, he ticked a number of boxes. Out of 10 I would give him eight.

Nzimande is sitting on the Balintulo report on how to arrive at free education and he is relying on this commission that was announced last year. Is he being genuine about supporting the call for free education? I don’t believe he is. He has not come forth as a leader in government to say free education is possible. He is not hearing what students are saying – they are saying give us free education but they are not being unreasonable.

You mentioned that the struggle for free education is directly linked to the struggle for basic education. Do you think that there needs to be a stronger emphasis on this by student protesters?

Of course. I have been quite irritable with some of the slogans coming from students leaders because there is an element of selfishness. The majority of students are paid for by private sponsors, they are paid for by their families, so the majority of students at Wits for example, are middle-class students. They went to middle class former white schools in Pretoria. Now, what does that tell you? It tells you that some of those who are protesting have never seen or ever been taught in a multi-grade classroom. If they are not able to speak about basic education, they are defeating their own call.

Because how can you speak about free quality higher education when you know that the majority of our people are not able to access the gates of UCT or Wits, and that is as a result of secondary education which is inadequate and continues to limit them and redirect them towards poverty?

Children in rural Limpopo or KZN do not even think of going to Wits, all they probably want to do after school is to find a job to feed their families.

A nationwide movement has formed to campaign for “free decolonised education”. Do you think it is a problem that there is not a clear consensus on what exactly protesting students want, with different universities and groups having different demands?

I think the different demands are very good. At the University of Limpopo they are calling for free education but the majority of the students are actually on financial aid, so what they are saying is we don’t want to pay loans. If you listen to Wits, they are calling for free education because it is the crisis of the middle class to be paying back money after they have graduated. And they are saying that Wits University remains a white university, “I am already rejected by the system”, “I have lecturers coming in in first year saying look at the person on your left or right, just know that you may not see them at graduation”, which happens to be true. You go to graduation ceremonies at UCT or Wits and it is mostly white students who continue to graduate in specific faculties like the ones that we are in great need of.

Those demands capture the state of higher education in the country. What the student movement needs to do is state what is important. The process of decolonisation – what form does it take? The call for free quality education, how do we arrive at free quality education? Is it for everybody? And what does that mean for the current economic structure of the country?

I think that the different demands need to be put onto one document and that document must probably be referred to as “The State of Higher Education in South Africa”. Because remember former black universities are still black universities and former white institutions are still white institutions – if you look at the senate, if you look at who is producing knowledge at those universities, if you look at their postgraduate programmes, who is accessing and funding them. And black universities are not able to develop postgrad centres. If you look at the top six universities’ income statements for 2013/2014, UCT and Wits had reserves of R3 to 4 billion each. And all that money comes from the funding for postgrad programmes. And then you look on the flipside, at the funding of Walter Sisulu and the University of Limpopo.

Decolonisation for Walter Sisulu means fixing the broken walls, decolonisation at UCT means being able to be accepted into a culture which is not white, which doesn’t exclude me on the basis of being black. A culture that encourages learning and academic thinking without being labelled or excluded.

These universities, the University of Limpopo and Walter Sisulu, are not covered in the media and you only very occasionally hear media reports on what they are calling for. What do you think can be done to change that?

It is middle-class people using their positions to voice out their issues, whereas the majority of working class people find it hard. [It is] in black institutions or institutions in rural provinces that you see the brutality of the police, in fact, those universities cannot even afford to have private security on campus, they rely on the police.

In institutions where there have been high levels of media attention, the students get covered on a daily basis. So they speak on behalf of everyone else. The media needs to play an active role in covering students’ protests in rural provinces. That has been part of the intention of Equal Education, that we will not be too organised in urban centres, we will go to where no one is going. We will go to the rural provinces to show the reality of our people. We speak of the forgotten schools for example, which are mostly in rural settings, and those reflect forgotten universities. I really do think that we do need to organise and mobilise around those universities. Not because it’s an “ag shame” moment for them but so that you can clearly show the link between basic education and higher education.

It is true, to an extent. It is also true that high school students are not being taught the right history of this country. It is true that high school students are taught more about Napoleon, are taught more about the Holocaust, than they are taught about Apartheid. Even in English. A book such as “I write what I like” – can you imagine the knowledge that young people would gain from that? Knowledge that is very local. Those books are not making their way to our classrooms.

The consequences of a closure of some university campuses will be dire not only for universities but for the country as a whole. The health system will suffer as graduates will not be able to begin their community service and teachers will not be able to take up positions in schools. Could you comment on this, particularly the effect that it will have on schools?

It would be terrible for schools, especially if you look at the need for maths, science and English teachers. You need teachers to graduate and register; if they don’t, they can’t teach.

Surely there are other strategic ways in which we can prove a point? But if students are saying, well we need to go all the way, part of protest is that they will need to live with the consequences.

So do you think universities should be opening next week?

Of course, they should open. A point has been made. There are other tactics of protest.

University management’s response to the protests have varied greatly. At UCT Max Price has simply shut down the university and mostly kept the police and private security off campus. Rhodes and Wits have taken a very different approach — which resulted in clashes between students and security. How do you feel about bringing large contingents of security onto campuses?

I will start with the police. The South African Police Service, the Farlam Commission has made a note of this after Marikana, is not trained to do proper public order policing. But in this case, except at Rhodes, they have been better than private security. Who gives private security the right to engage in the manner that they did and on unarmed students? Who are these private security companies? Surely criminal charges [should be] laid against them?

But Rhodes is in an urban setting and therefore we are able to see those visuals. We saw what happened at the University of Limpopo the previous day, with the police chasing students. At TUT Soshanguve, which is in a township, how do the police respond there?

Do you think when universities attempt to reopen next week they shouldn’t have private security on their campuses?

Not at all.

Why do you think that vice-chancellors have not been able to engage with student protesters?

There is a way in which vice chancellors engage with student leaders and that is not on the basis of equals. They engage on the basis of “we know better”.

Vice-chancellors need to stop saying we have been negotiating. If they have they must produce any offer that they have made to students in those negotiations. Vice-chancellors need to say one thing and one thing only: “We support the call for free education and we are saying to students we will march with you”. That is the only thing they need to say.

But they are not doing that. They are thinking this will just end by some miracle – that this will just go away. In fact, they are protecting the state.

I was happy when I saw academics protesting outside parliament. It is unfortunate that the student leaders didn’t see that as a genuine opportunity to call for free education. The divisions are so large that they feel those five students who have been expelled are more important than the call for free education.

This article first appeared on GroundUp.