Oh great. Our minister of higher education has resurfaced after going AWOL following his issuing of a statement a few days ago. It only took a few scuffles here and there, a vandalised hall at Wits University, stun grenades in the streets of Braamfontein, private security wrestling female students to the ground and the University of Cape Town suspending its entire academic programme and then the esteemed leader of the SA Communist Party reappeared. And what did he reappear to do, take leadership responsibility in a supposed area of competence?
No. He’s exhorting “all of society to now stand up and say enough is enough. We cannot let a few students act in a vandalistic manner and do nothing.” Amazing. Let’s backtrack a bit.
Towards the end of last year, the entire higher education sector rose up under the #FeesMustFall banner and brought the entire country to a standstill. They actually nearly threatened the seat of government, storming parliament in Cape Town demanding access to free higher education. There were scenes at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. In typical Zuma administration style, no one wanted to take responsibility. They blamed “foreign agents” and the CIA and promised a full investigation into the “phenomenon”. We’re still waiting for the results of that investigation. Our esteemed leader of higher education did then what we now know he does best: go underground and wait for the dust to settle.
But this dust isn’t about to settle. The government was warned then that this is not a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon that will dissipate on its own. These student uprisings were birthed when the #RhodesMustFall movement started as a loose collection of students protesting about a statue a while ago. Even to a casual observer, the writing was on the wall. Societal transformation was never going to be a nice-to-have alternative option any more.
The students of South Africa were going to ignite a movement that would seek to set right what the adults had been failing to set right in over two decades of democracy.
The Global Education Magazine qoutes a United Nations report that says South Africa is the most unequal country in the world.
“The most equal countries in the world – Japan, Sweden and Denmark – have Gini indexes of 25. In these countries the top 10 % earn only six times as much as the bottom 10%. By contrast, the top 10% in South Africa earn 110 times more than the bottom 10%.
The United Nations took it a step further and identified reasons why this is so.
“The education level, gender and age of the household head; and whether the household is located in urban townships, informal settlements, other urban areas, or rural areas”.
This “minority of vandalistic students” has realised what the rest of society refuses to acknowledge, which is that South Africa did not get where it is by chance. There was deliberate action that led to the inequality. And giving new labels to the products of that inequality will not change the setup. What got us here was unfair.
What we need to get out of here will in all probability have to be unfair. The minister education, in the only suggestion that he has made to resolve the current crisis, has suggested that the products of South Africa’s inequality, otherwise known as the poor, the previously disadvantaged, the currently disadvantaged, the masses or, as he chooses to call them, “the missing middle”, be “assisted” with funding to ensure that all students have access to higher education. “The missing middle”, that’s the 80% of South Africa that these students are standing up for.
Do not be misled by labels such as “the minority of students”, look at what they’re fighting for. Like you, I’m disgusted at the levels of violence that accompany the protests. But think back to the beginning of the uprisings. These students didn’t wake up and say let’s go and burn up a few lecture halls, they had peaceful protests which have been met with “robust” South African-style policing. As late as Tuesday this week stun grenades were still being unleashed against unarmed students. One can only wish we’re not heading for another Marikana. If only someone could take up leadership. Maybe the minister of higher education, a man who himself has a doctorate?
I know what you’re thinking: “Where does this Sydney guy think the money for free education will come from?”
Frankly, I don’t know. Maybe it’s there, maybe it isn’t. What matters, though, is that these struggles to right past wrongs need to be given the attention they deserve. South Africa’s transformation will not be easy, it will not be rainbow-nation-let’s-braai-together-on-Heritage-Day easy. It requires courageous leadership. Leadership that knows that you cannot have one hand in the cookie jar of public funds and throw stun grenades at protesting students with the other.
In 1991 I took part in a sit-in at the administration block of Senate House, recently renamed Solomon Mahlangu House. It was against “financial exclusion” at the same Wits University that’s in the news today. Twenty-five years later, kids who were not even born then are engaged in running battles with the police as they protest the same “financial exclusion”, and all society can tell them is we will “assist” you. The assistance of which must not be “unfair” to the rest of the privileged in society.
The answers are not easy, but the minister was there at that Polokwane conference of the ruling party that promised “free higher education for all”. He cannot now play hide-and-seek games and hope for peace. These uprisings are not going away anytime soon. They might change form and shape, become “service delivery protests” or “wage negotiations protests”, but they will be around until meaningful action is taken to address inequality.
He can’t argue there’s no money when you’ve got a zillion ministries in government doing work that could be done by half the number of departments. Two education ministers? A minister of Women, Children and the Disabled? A Minister of Social Services? One Minister for Energy and another for Mineral Resources?
Half the money that’s needed for education is sitting in a bloated Cabinet with endless departments. Sort that out first and the transformation will have started. When we stop giving new labels to old problems we’ll be well on our way to locating the missing middle – that’s if they were really missing in the first place.