​Civil society steps in to build an equal university education

Protesting students on October 23 2015. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Protesting students on October 23 2015. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

COMMENT

During my short-lived sojourn as a student at the University of Fort Hare, there was a war cry that rallied students across political ideologies against the atrocities of the repressive apartheid system experienced in the townships and meted out by the police.

The rallying call for sustained student protest action found its expression in the isiXhosa words “Inkululeko ngoku, idigli gomso”, which loosely translated means “Freedom now, a degree in the future”. This slogan was a heartfelt, passionate and deeply emotional expression against the injustices of the apartheid system.

In those years, University of Fort Hare students stood firm and united in their frequent protest action against all forms of the injustices of apartheid.

The intensity of the protests was such that the entire student body would choose not to write their crucial final-year exams in solidarity with people in the townships, some of whom were killed in their fierce battles against the police.

In response to the rallying call many students lost a year or more of their varsity studies. Some of those students can now be found on the benches of the judiciary, some are Cabinet ministers and others are accomplished business people.

Those who valued completing their degrees on time and chose not to boycott final exams would be labelled as dissenters, which was similar to being called mdlwembe (a sell-out).

The student protest movement contributed to the demise of apartheid and had other positive spinoffs such as the development of ethical, educated and principled leadership for the post-apartheid era.

Most who belonged to the Inkululeko ngoku, idigli gomso movement have retired, are close to retirement or have died. They abided by the principle of making personal sacrifices for the common good.

A lot has been said and written about the current generation of students with regard to their #FeesMustFall movement. This movement, which is active across all of our university campuses, should not be viewed and analysed outside the broader struggle against the economic deprivation experienced by most black South Africans, which is the most fundamental legacy of apartheid.

The #FeesMustFall movement takes place in the context of a government that has performed poorly in taking the majority of the black people out of the abyss of poverty and all the social ills associated with economic deprivation. It is common knowledge that over the period of 20 years we have created a system of government that’s characterised by its inability to create jobs.

We need to acknowledge that the economic decline our country is experiencing is a result of the failed economic policies of the ANC-led government. Those who punctuate their fiery speeches with the phrase “white monopoly capital” should use appropriate democratic mechanisms to implement alternative macroeconomic policy solutions to the economic challenges. Political rhetoric that is aimed at brewing racial hatred and promoting hostility between employers and workers will not help to address poverty, unemployment and unequal distribution of wealth in the country.

Our collective conscience must make us stand and rise against any form of political narrative that seeks to compromise or eliminate our constitutional order. As much as we should all guard against the degeneration of our country into another failed African country, we have a historical and moral obligation to do the following:

  • Challenge the failed economic policies of the government, which have led to joblessness, unemployment and an increasing gap between the extremely rich and the poor;
  • Speak and act against a socioeconomic landscape where those who openly flaunt their “new money” are connected with politicians at all of the levels of government; and
  • Act on the recommendations of the State of Capture report, which has made claims with far-reaching implications that some wealthy individuals have taken over the many aspects of the affairs of government so that they unfairly, in some cases illegally, advance their goals of wealth accumulation.

The protests of the #FeesMustFall movement and the possibility that universities are faced with a repeat of violence and disruptions in the new academic year should be viewed in the broader context of government’s failed economic policies and corruption at all levels of government, which have resulted in the country losing hundreds of billions of rands.

The newly formed National Education Crisis Forum (NECF) is an important initiative by civil society, which could, among other things, assist in averting violent protests when students go back to university.

The NECF must brace itself for a bumpy road in stabilising the higher education landscape. Its constituent members must be politically independent and none of them must be seen to be advancing the cause of a faction in the ANC succession battles.

The likes of former Deputy Judge President Dikgang Moseneke and Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana are a welcome addition to this crucial initiative.

The forum should also make public all 11 conveners and any other people associated with its work. They should all be people of high standing and with impeccable credentials in terms of contributing to the development of democracy and the economy of the country without pursuing a party political agenda.

We are a country that has shown the world that negotiations can bring peace and stability in the most difficult circumstances. This is another opportunity for us to show the world and our African countrymen and women that “the pen is mightier than the sword”.

If we draw any lessons from the Convention for a Democratic South Africa process, the first major task for the NECF is to create an environment that is conducive to constructive negotiations. This can be achieved by, among other things, taking the following practical but important steps:

  • Preventing violent protests by students — peaceful protests are a constitutional right;
  • Withdrawal of police and security forces from university campuses;
  • Amnesty should be granted to all those arrested and charged as a result of participating in the protests. This should not be viewed as undermining the rule of the law but as a move to get students back to the negotiation table;
  • Students who cannot pay the registration fee should get provisional registration;
  • All historical debt must be written off, especially where students can prove inability to pay;
  • Lecturers must teach large classes and repeat lectures on some evenings. This will enable face-to-face delivery of tuition, especially in situations where there is not enough technology; and
  • Political leaders must stop using inflammatory language that incites violence when making speeches about the fees issue.

A peaceful and stable environment would accelerate the implementation of immediate solutions that serve as a foundation for the development of sustainable solutions to what is a national crisis.

We also need to put in some money for the initiatives of the NECF, in the form of an emergency fund. In the Nguni languages, it is often said “faka imali uzo bona” — loosely translated “put money in and you will see things change”.

The beneficiaries of the flawed black economic empowerment policies, who literally made billions from the sweat and tears of our people, should be the main contributors to the proposed NECF Emergency Fund. Public representatives such as MPs and the president should make a once-off contribution to the fund. The responsibility to manage the fund could be the top three accounting firms, which would provide such a service out of goodwill and not for profit.

The fund could be directed to respond to situations of emergency in the provision of higher education — in particular where students have no food, no transport money and no place to stay.

The NECF will require the support of all those who love our country. The way we manage the higher education fees crisis will determine our successes in responding effectively to other pressing national issues such as the land question, the elimination of HIV, unemployment, crime and all its manifestations.

The NECF is not a perfect response to the fees crisis and there is no perfect response in national crises. Every nation must fight and win its battles in the context of the Constitution, democracy and peaceful coexistence.

The new generation of students owe their freedom to the Inkululeko ngoku, idigli gomso generation.

Let us, as a nation, build on the foundations of the previous generation.

Dr Tutu Faleni is a Democratic Alliance member of the North West provincial legislature. These are his own views.

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