January 2016 started with a clear indication that the student disturbances are not over… and events since then have made it clear that they are likely to be with us for the foreseeable future


At least one man near the centre of the university fees storm anticipated it. When interviewed by this observer in November 2015, Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) warned that both staff and students had told him to expect more protests in 2016.

The 2015 student protests, which have now spilt over into 2016 and seem certain to continue in 2017, were the largest since 1994, but by no means the first. Between 2010 and 2015, fees protests took place every year and in every university in the country. The majority of the protests were about high fees and the failure of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

Most university managements agreed. “The fees are too high,” said Habib at the time. “I think our fees are unsustainable.”

The lack of sustainability applies both to individual student budgets and those of the universities too. The Minister of Higher Education has tried to slip out of the firing line by saying that the precise nature of 2017 fee increases was up to the universities themselves, but he suggested 8%. That is not what the student protestors have in mind. They want 0%. In fact, they want no fees at all.

Universities have only three sources of income: government subsidies, private sector endowments and fees. With the first two unlikely to come to the aid of management, raising fees has so far been the only possibility.

Some educational experts believe that the majority of students and their families cannot afford their fees. Students have even complained about hunger affecting their ability to study. Stop Hunger Now CEO, Saira Khan, reveals the results of an illuminating pilot study conducted by her organisation at the University of Johannesburg in 2014. According to the study of the 8000 students who were unable to sustain themselves, the university was able to assist only 3 500, leaving another 4 500 chronically hungry. Vice-Chancellor Ihron Rensburg estimated that 30% of their students are from poor communities.

Solutions in the air

At the NSFAS, which is supposed to fund needy students, demand has far increased supply. Students complain that they qualify for assistance, but do not receive it because the coffers are empty.

Like so many protests, these generally start with non-violent demonstrations, but as the excitement builds, they do not stay that way. Many recent disturbances are like a replaying of 2015. No university in the country has been unaffected. Wits, the University of Cape Town, Pretoria, the University of the Western Cape, Cape University of Technology, Tshwane University of Technology, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan and others have had to close at some point. Examination halls, libraries and vehicles have been set alight.

At the University of KwaZulu-Natal, an examination venue was set alight and extensively damaged. Immediately, Siphelele Nguse, the President of the Students Representative Council, said the incident had compromised their struggle.

“Our struggle is not about burning down buildings. It is about free education. It will be impossible to get free education if there are people who torch university property.”

His attitude is a reflection of the way most students feel. Only a small minority, most of whom are most likely to fail, seek to close their universities. When Wits called for a referendum on whether the university should close, the vast majority of students and personnel voted to keep it open.

Recently, nine young people were arrested near the university for violent behaviour but only four students demonstrated the violence. This seems to give credence to the speculation that some of the protests are actually instigated by outsiders.

A singular organisation called the Organisation for Africa’s Youth was started to give an intellectual home to the many who are not comfortable with wild demands and the unrestrained rhetoric of radical leadership. Mordecai Shumba, its founding President and a recent UNISA graduate, says, “Throughout Africa, young people find themselves excluded if they are not part of the dominant political party. We want a system that includes all. This is the kind of leadership Africa is crying out for.”

Shumba was born in Zimbabwe but has settled in Johannesburg. It is no surprise that his organisation has developed pan-African legs with members in Zambia, Malawi, Cameroon, Kenya and Ghana, apart from South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Lerato Mahoyi, a young woman from a poor community wrote this in an article for the Sunday Times : “We have a common message: Do not give up on young people. Sceptics will say that you can’t overcome the deficits of childhood, that children who lose out early lose out for life…but we have the latest cognitive science on our side. It shows that our brains have enormous capacity for change, far beyond childhood.”

In a completely different category, AfriForum’s young people have not given up on South Africa and, like Lerato Mahoyi, ask that we do not give up on them. Some of their young members have moved overseas, but the organisation has been running a campaign to bring them home. “We want to make a difference here at home,” says Charl Oberholzer, former National Chairman of AfriForum Youth. “All we ask is the opportunity to contribute freely and compete equally. As long as there is hope, our people will stay in South Africa.”

While the attitudes of our young people, including our students, are not as frightening as many seem to think, what to do about the fees remains the challenge. “Free higher education is a myth,” says Damtew Teferra of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in a recent article for The Conversation. He believes it is not something that should even be attempted. His point is that most of those who qualify for university come from families that can afford to contribute. Free university education then sponsors the relatively wealthy. “The country’s struggling poor and middle class end up bankrolling the education of those who don’t need the support.” He adds that the growth of student numbers is outstripping what the economic base can generate in tax revenue. “Too many students, too few taxpayers.”

The answer may be to get the NSFAS to work properly and serve its purpose. “Almost all South Africans who complete an undergraduate degree are guaranteed employment and high lifetime earnings. This means they can afford to repay their share of the qualification,” says George Hull of the University of Cape Town, “but the loan scheme needs to be underwritten by government as commercial banks won’t provide credit without security.

“While everyone pays tax of one kind or another, far fewer than half of South Africans will receive a university education. Surely it is not fair that the intrinsic rewards and competitive advantage conferred by higher education should be fully funded by taxpayers when only a minority enjoy them.”

Good learner, bad learner

Habib feels the greatest danger these protests present may be that people learn that violence and disruption are rewarded. Lyn Snodgrass, Head of the Department of Political and Conflict Studies at Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan University, agrees. “Violence becomes a learned response because it garners results,” she says. “Social learning indicates that violent behaviour has inadvertently been reinforced—and even rewarded.”

Inevitably, the matter of amnesty for lawless behaviour arises. “But I worry about amnesty. By declaring amnesty you may recreate the same behaviour.

“I feel we have to strike a balance,” says Habib. “Where protest is legitimate, if inconvenient, we must allow it, but where criminal behaviour occurs, as in the cases of arson, I have no authority to waive it. If someone tries to set a building alight or break a window he can be arrested.”

No one can accuse Habib of not communicating with his students. In one debate on the concourse of Senate House in late 2015, he was involved with students for almost 20 uninterrupted hours. He had been in Durban, left at half-past four in the morning and went directly to Wits. The discussion on a concourse crowded with students was only adjourned at six the next morning. “By the Thursday, the dissidents had begun talking to us,” he recounts. “By the weekend we had negotiated the whole deal. By the next Monday, we were 100% operational, with the consent of all parties. After that, the university was running.”

Inevitably, whatever the side issues, the debate is first and last about funding. Since 1994, student numbers have doubled, but according to Diana Parker of the Department of Higher Education and Training, in the last decade, state support per student has declined by about 30%. This has happened despite Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa chairing a committee in 2013 that recommended significant increases in funding.

Against the backdrop of the Fees Must Fall unrest, a significant fact is that, for the first time last year, the fees paid by Wits students exceeded the government subsidy. That difference would have grown still further had the proposed increases for 2016 become reality. It will surely grow further in 2017.

In 1994, the higher education system catered for about 12% of the population. Today, it has to accommodate close to 30%. At Wits, 75% of students are black and 25% white. This means that the proportion of students from poor homes who struggle to contribute towards tertiary education is growing.

It is clear that the source of student fees is a cow that cannot be milked any further. The government has to face the fact that it has run dry. It seems clear that university managements have already faced it.

The crisis at South African universities has brought out the best brains in the academies themselves. Authorities in philosophy, psychology, politics and related disciplines have weighed in, each with his or her specialised wisdom. No one wants to say anything terrible about the students they have to teach once it is all over, but the government, university managements and history are fair game.

Here are a few of their thoughts:

“Free university education would require a minimum injection of R40 billion from the public purse. Such an injection implies that the deficit would increase by nearly 1% of GDP, if not funded by alternative arrangements.” - Steve Koch, University of Pretoria, Ramos Mabugu, University of Stellenbosch.

“The increasing reduction of state subsidies is turning Wits and other universities into de facto private institutions. Elite, not on the basis of intellectual ability, but on the basis of social class.” - David Dickenson, University of the Witwatersrand.

“The government’s subsidy to universities is, to a large extent, regulated by two parameters: student degree completion and research output. In both instances, it is quantity rather than quality that determines the amount of money a university receives from government.” - Hartmut Winkler, University of Johannesburg.

“Whenever Gaudeamus Igitur is sung, the African is momentarily banished to some imaginary cave as the conqueror’s culture is celebrated.” - Geoff Mapaya, University of Venda.

“Free education will widen, not reduce, inequality…less than 5% of the poor qualify for entry into universities.” - Nico Cloete, University of the Western Cape

“Deadlocks can be broken and truces brokered when students are presented with concrete solutions to their immediate problems.” - UCT’s Curriculum Change Working Group

“Social learning indicates that violent behaviour has inadvertently been reinforced–and even rewarded” - Lyn Snodgrass

No room at the inn

Plenty of young people from poor communities have no real chance of attending university. Those from the townships on the Cape Flats are a typical example. They live in a world of drug-fuelled violence, which is so intense that, on occasion, armed metro police officers have had to be sent in to protect school children. Manenberg High School Principal Thurston Brown has said that his teachers are helpless to protect either the pupils or themselves.

“If 250 pupils enrol in Grade 8 next year, about 60 will make it as far as matric. Of those, perhaps 15 will go to FET colleges. Only five or six will go on to tertiary education. That leaves some 200 who will never finish school and are highly prone to a life of crime.”

It is a sad picture with some brilliant exceptions. For the young people from the Cape Flats to compete with those from middle and upper-class areas takes considerable effort.

The worst of all options

While some young people demonstrate against the cost of education, there are others who have chosen a truly damaging option. The flow of young people to ISIS from around the world has been big enough to build an army.

“South Africans think we are immune,” says Anton Du Plessis, CEO of the Institute for Security Studies. “But young South Africans have been joining them, and coming back as hardened terrorists. They are part of a circle of dangerous losers, angry and discontented. At some time their demands will outstrip government’s ability to meet them.”

The world’s top intelligence sources estimate that some 40-50 000 foreign fighters, between 300 and 500 of them from South Africa, are currently active in the terrorist army. “Can you imagine the impact when these battle-hardened veterans return?” asks Du Plessis.

He feels that governments in many parts, including Africa, have used the American war on terrorism to clamp down on religious freedoms, suppressing human rights and freedom of expression. “As the perceived risk intensifies, so does the likelihood of military responses to the threat. But clamping down on communities creates long-term problems. The invasion of Muslim lands by Western powers gets linked to local grievances. It has been said that for every day America keeps Guantanamo Bay open, 100 new extremists are created.

“South Africa is not guiltless in this. We allowed the United States to arrest a man in Cape Town and take him back without proper extradition. The Constitutional Court found us guilty.

“The number of Baghdadi types who want to decapitate people is small, but the number of young people joining the terrorist armies is large. People join for various reasons in different contexts. Terrorists exploit the local grievances of those who feel marginalised and politically isolated. The angry, desperate young feel government has broken the contract with them. A lot of African men who believe they have no prospects will be easy to recruit, not necessarily for religious reasons. They are attracted by the promise of pay, food and shelter.”

In places like Somalia and northeastern Nigeria, the discontentment of certain elements in the young has grown into something far bigger and far less manageable than our student protests. In Du Plessis’s words, “We are not immune.”
“Our struggle is not about burning down buildings–it is about free education” - Siphelele Nguse


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