/ 13 March 2023

Financial exclusion for many black students is a generational albatross

Financial Exclusion
Universities, the private sector and the government have still not fully addressed the exclusion of students who cannot afford a higher education. (John McCann/M&G)

Conflicting commentary buzzed through social media about the protests at the University of the Witwatersrand. 

A determined Aphiwe Mnyamana, the student representative council president, flanked by the secretary general, Tshiamo Chuma, addressed the media, dissecting the issues that had led them to resort to a protest. He raised the issues of financial exclusion, accommodation and the pace of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme in paying students allowances, among others. A case of deja vu, don’t you think? 

It takes South Africa back to the #FeesMustFall protests and preceding student protests at various universities across the country. Inevitably, and true to sensational traction, the effervescent nature of the protests made headlines more than the issues raised by students. The armchair critics critiqued. The praise singers praised. 

Yet one fundamental question failing to occupy the public discourse is why, almost 30 years into the democratic dispensation, the face of struggle, the face of humiliation and exclusion, remains the black student. This demonstrates itself even in the academic and social configuration of Wits University. West Campus, which houses mostly law, engineering and commerce students, has a greater population of white and Indian people, while East Campus (where protests normally erupt and take place) houses the social science students, who are predominantly black people. These are subtle discriminatory exclusions that start from the application process. 

The recent protests, in form and content, seem to affirm that each generation entering the doors of higher learning must find itself fighting the same injustices, the same socio-economic conditions, merely to access and exercise a right that is democratically and constitutionally protected. While the historical mantra goes “aluta continua”, struggle cannot be a perennial state for a specific race, class and the greatest section of the so-called rainbow nation.

Little attention is redirected to the systemic and structural failures which keep generation after generation of black students in this conundrum. Year in, year out, the government and the private sector fail to address these socio-economic hindrances blocking access to higher education for the black student. I deliberately make mention of the private sector because it is a major beneficiary of a skilled workforce. It ought to be a champion of equality and access to education. 

The critics expressed concern and dismay about the vandalism perpetrated by students during the protests. The schizophrenic relationship between authority and the working class has transitioned into democracy. Students come from places where society ends up resorting to violent protests when they need to be heard. In instances where crime has plagued neighbourhoods, people resort to mob justice. When municipalities fail in delivering services, people resort to protests. This is the consequence of a fragile, tenuous social fabric, as a result of a breached social contract between the state and society.  

Education is a vital intervention for a world that is becoming increasingly complex, antagonistic and susceptible to social instability and economic threats. The unprecedented Covid pandemic made matters worse and exposed how poverty remains a cavernous class gap in South Africa.  

In his address, Mnyamana used the example of a student from Qwaqwa coming to Wits for the first time. This student was in a computer lab and couldn’t turn on a computer. He had to be assisted. These things might seem miniscule to the privileged. Not all students come from families with the means to kick-start their tertiary education. Some come from a basic education system, which does not provide the most basic amenities such as ablution facilities and proper infrastructure, because of state corruption. 

Others carry dreams safely packaged in their bags and hearts, with the hope for a better life, an opportunity to rewrite the course of their lives and those of their families. Yet universities still take an intransigent posture towards this class of society, demanding impossible amounts of money for registration, and shortfalls for accommodation and purchasing academic books.  

Mnyamana said challenges for black students start way before they even enter a lecture hall. Ideally, a student ought to enter a lecture hall with all amenities and with administrative and financial issues sorted. But the population of students with fees paid, books purchased, cars to travel in and accommodation paid for are largely of a minority race. 

The psychological effect of this is boundless. The uncertainty about the immediate future and being made to feel like they do not belong in universities is a scar way before the academic journey starts. Theu fee; the pain of being systemically relegated to a certain class with little choice or protection of exercising their constitutional rights. 

Black students are already orientated into the perverse system of racialised capitalism. Education and funding becomes a privilege. Aspects of a protest are better sound bites for the media. But 30 years into the democratic dispensation, the form protests take become the modus operandi used by students to air their frustrations. Their tactics demonstrate turbulence, rage and patience running thin. 

With a history of structural aspects of the economy being straightjacketed by a narrow, capitalist and self-enriching ideology, the government has failed to unlock the potential of a more inclusive economy. Exclusion in higher education mirrors this injustice.   

Fundamental changes are required in our universities and the overall education economy needs a more intentional and inclusive approach. The private sector, society and the government must come to the party. 

It cannot be that each generation must be burdened with the same struggles in a country where billions of rands fall into the pit of corruption and perverse accumulation is glorified. Expecting peaceful protests in a country failing to elevate and protect its youth is expecting the entire citizenry to normalise the current socio-economic realities faced by the majority without consequence. 

Gugu Ndima is a social commentator.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.