/ 8 May 2020

Young people need a bailout: Cancel student debt held by national banks

(John McCan/M&G)
The primary aversion to tuition-free education is ideological, and fails to take South Africa’s historical makeup into consideration. (Graphic: John McCann/M&G)


One year ago, South Africa headed to the polls leading to a decisive victory for President Cyril Ramaphosa, whose government emerged from the Jacob Zuma era which was defined by destructive corruption and malaise. Markets rallied, consumer confidence spiked and South Africans sighed a collective sigh of relief, despite numerous societal challenges. In an unexpected twist, the global coronavirus pandemic emerged as the defining international crisis of a generation, ravaging the global economy, upending trade relations and radically altering daily life. 

Ramaphosa’s government has demonstrated laudable leadership in response to the crisis and implemented an enormous R500-billion stimulus package. The president also signalled an urgency to restructure the economy in a more just and equitable way, without clarifying how his message would translate into policy. 

The energetic dynamism necessary to rebuild South Africa as a robust regional power relies on an educated and multiskilled workforce and this cannot be realised if our youth are caught in a debt death-grip. Urgent economic relief and stimulus must also include the unconditional cancellation of student debt held by national banks and move towards a framework for debt-free education.

Fees never fell, transformation stalled

In order to progress towards a more equitable and fair society, we must envisage one that empowers our people with the tools to do so, and it starts with debt-free education and skills development. 

Five years ago, campus movements across South African institutions of learning mobilised thousands in a protest collective known as #FeesMustFall. It was a nationwide call to abolish tuition fees and the student debt model for funding shortfalls caused by budget cuts in education. The movements also denounced a lack of transformation in institutions such as Stellenbosch University, which later produced an appalling, discredited article analysing “low-cognitive functioning in coloured women”. Regrettably, the Fees Must Fall movement’s effectiveness fizzled out and higher education continued on the road of commodification, in a highly financialised macroeconomy.  

The collective talent of a diverse generation of prospective entrepreneurs, artisans and carers has been unreasonably chained to years of debt repayments to our engorged national banks, instead of saving for personal investments. The same banks currently the target for legitimate criticism for not doing as they pledged to help vulnerable businesses and families during the pandemic. If you are fortunate to secure a better paying job in the city, the wrath of an unregulated and monopolistic landlord class will extract the rest of your savings from increasing rent prices — beyond reasonable measure. In the 2010s, the fight to reclaim the city and implement affordable housing schemes were vehemently fought off by Democratic Alliance-governed cities, and tacitly enabled by an ANC national government (except for some vocal ministers such as Lindiwe Sisulu) that turned a blind eye. 

The assault on the finances of working-age South Africans inhibits our ability to build a robust African economic powerhouse and as a result, I predict we will see anaemic growth for the foreseeable future. 

The benefits of cancellation

Our major national banks need to step up to the plate and do more than espouse the empty sloganisms of public relations campaigns proming “to be there for you during Covid-19”. Debt cancellation can be readily absorbed by our national banks, which remain some of the most capitalised and asset-sheet positive financial institutions in the world. South Africans are now witnessing the first of many international disasters to come, in a future to be defined by the consequences of unchecked climate change. Economic consequences of this pandemic will lead to shuttered business, illegal evictions and debt defaults — including the avoidable student debt issue. Our new economic model needs to embrace unconventional measures to stimulate economic activity. 

Detractors and other free-market fundamentalists fail to understand that markets are enabled by regulatory practice and enshrined in the legal apparatus of the states. Funding high-quality tuition, free or affordable tertiary education is actually a sound investment in the competitiveness of our labour market. A strategic public-private partnership could help leverage the appeal of obtaining a degree with English as the medium of instruction, to a growing untapped market of wealthy international students. 

An affordable alternative to the rising cost of studying in Australia, the United Kingdom and other countries that followed this approach. Investing in our institutions as desirable places to study can generate new revenue streams for our tertiary institutions, opening pathways for subsidising tuition costs for underprivileged students domestically.

Meritocracy, if you can afford it  

It has often been said talent is distributed but opportunity is not. Opposition to student debt cancellation is often claimed to violate liberal democratic values of fairness and meritocracy. Debt cancellation is deemed unfair to borrowers who dedicatedly paid-off their debt. The mantra — “If I suffered then so should you!” — is not a valid argument against debt cancellation. The mythology of meritocracy has been institutionalised, allowing the privileged to believe historical racialised economic inequities are irrelevant to contemporary social outcomes, including who attends, finishes and flourishes after graduation.  

In a country with staggering inequality and poverty, it is politically expedient to blame individuals for failing to pay their debts off rather than assessing the structural inequities that affect conditions to pay. Ample research has linked racialised socioeconomic inequities to higher numbers of family dependents relying on black graduates. This phenomenon is colloquially known as “black tax” and does not count the burden of escalating living costs all South Africans are faced with. 

Ultimately, poorer students graduate with higher levels of debts and face greater obstacles to pay them, which is neither fair nor indicative of merit. Moralising or political grandstanding on who is deserving or undeserving of debt relief will only weaken efforts to realise our democratic ambitions. We should be doing everything we can to expand opportunity and promote productive economic behaviour above the normalised extractive economic orthodoxy of neoliberalism over the past 40 years. 

South Africa should look no further than the United States where student debt has metastasised into a crisis.  The psychological and material burden of student debt has been linked to the delay in young Americans starting families, buying homes, starting  businesses and participating in other productive economic activity. Meanwhile, the Labour Party in the UK is calling for a return to a needs-based grant system and Germany abolished tuition fees in 2014. If dynamic, wealthy industrialised nations with robust labour markets buckled under the debt burden then why is South Africa willing to walk off the same plank? 

In closing

The primary aversion to tuition-free education is ideological, and fails to take South Africa’s historical makeup into consideration. Debt cancellation is a rational and strategic investment in our nation’s workforce which has to be empowered to meet the grave challenges presented by a post-pandemic world facing ecological catastrophe. To solve the mammoth challenges of skill shortages and unemployment then debt-free higher education must be on the economic agenda.  More bright minds are needed to work on designing the financial instruments and developing new resilient industries for a future “green” economy needed to avoid hurtling off the proverbial cliff’s edge. 

It is our opportunity as South Africans to turn our backs on self-interest and greed, and move towards a society centred on social security and sustainable development. Let’s start by cancelling student debt.