Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Freedom isn’t free is a lesson for protesting South African students

By Hilton Kolbe *
Student protests currently gripping capital cities in South Africa have been a catalyst for change since the mid 1970s. Cape Town and the University of the Western Cape have been no strangers to political unrest, campus shut downs and police brutality.

In 1973, students were boycotting classes and taking to the streets to protest against the Afrikaner government and its insistence on mandatory teaching of Afrikaans. Twenty years later monumental changes occurred and the student uprisings could be seen as the beginning of the end for apartheid.
Now in 2015, students are again taking to the streets in protest.

They are not boycotting classes because universities have shut the doors in a growing climate of violence and hostility. This time the protests are against the Zuma government and free university education for all. Will these events also signal the start of the end for the current political structures just as it did in 1973? That is hard to say. Probably unlikely given the current state of the Opposition parties, but the seeds of dissent have been scattered.

The national push for no fee increases for university education has been a thorn in the side for the government. Already President Jacob Zuma has backed down with angry students clamouring at the doors of Parliament in Cape Town. It was a time for strong men to stand erect but they all went limp.  Government should impose higher taxes on the rich to fund free higher education for the poor, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande said. “My own considered view is that government must have the political will to tax the rich and the wealthy to fund higher education. None of us must develop cold feet about the necessity of taxing the rich to fund our children.”

Instead, they agreed to halt any fee increases for this year. Wits University agreed not to increase 2016 tuition and residence fees, with an undertaking that the upfront payment of R9 340 for 2016 would be discussed further. But this was a dark day for the government who capitulated to student demands. It was a cowardly gesture of a government in denial to concede and bow to pressure from those barging at the doors of the lawmakers.

No matter what the circumstances, never concede to thugs and protesters who come knocking at the doors of Parliament seeking gifts. The system does not work this way. It only encourages every other group with a gripe or demand to take similar disruptive action. And to add further insult to fiscal injury, the Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene was forced to delay his mini Budget briefing and MPs had to wait as police struggled to keep an angry mob at bay.

In a country where one in four people are without jobs, the cost of free university education is expected to knock a R2.6 billion blowout in capital expenditure; it is not easy to see where the funds will come from. South Africa is beset by a multitude of developmental problems and embezzlement of public funds. And, what is it that makes these Born Free students feel it is their entitlement.

If there is something that sticks in the craw about the so-called Born Frees, and by extension the rabidly obtuse Gen Exers with their sense of entitlement and ability to transform the slightest bit of adversity into an opportunity for grand reward, then it is the bold self-righteous way in way in which these vociferous young people go about staking out their claims.

The student protests have been marred by ugly scenes, police clashes and more sinister in many cases the momentum has been driven by participants armed with clubs and weapons. At the University of Limpopo at least 13 students were arrested as police clamped down on students accused of burning and looting at the campus. Students went on rampage and vandalised six cafeterias and a national outlet restaurant after the institution said it could not commit to their demands for free education.
At Wits students and security guards pelted each other with stones and   burly men in black suits throttled and wrestled students to stop them from disrupting classes. A bookshop and two vehicles were also set on fire in the early hours and access control mechanisms on turnstiles were ripped off.

The University of the Western Cape was also shut down until further notice after a group of students started rallying support for ongoing protest action across campus buildings and offices and demanding that staff leave the campus. Students preparing for exams were also disrupted.

 A statement  from UWC said the intensity of the action led to many staff and students feeling vulnerable and intimidated as some in the protest group wore balaclavas and had sticks and crowbars.
Meanwhile on campus, hundreds of students occupied the university’s Life Science centre where some of the demands, read out by student Busiswa Ngqamani. Demands included that all student debts be scrapped, that no students be prevented from graduating because of outstanding fees and that students should not pay any registration fees. 

Other demands included that students be able to register for the entire year in January instead of every semester, and that the university starts a process of buying houses in the surrounding community and make them UWC communes.  (Quoting IoL news reports)

Student leader Kamva Rubulana said that the president’s announcement of the zero percent fee increment meant nothing to the students as they were not fighting for the zero percent increment but for the fall of all fees.  “The only way we can stop this shut down is if the debt problem of UWC students can be resolved, he added. 

 Ngqamani, included that all student debts be scrapped, that no students be prevented from graduating because of outstanding fees and that students should not pay any registration fees. (Quoting IoL news reports)

These demands come from a privileged few who in the main have had a solid private education in some of the best schools that have enabled them to obtain a matric exemption and to enter university with the poshest of English accents. There is nothing wrong about that. But to demand free university education from a system that you have not contributed a single cent in tax is very wrong. 

So who has to subsidize these free loaders? A father of four children who makes his way by taxi van to his labouring job some 50km away and who earns subsistence wages and pays taxes will not be feeling too happy about the prospective doctors, lawyers, teachers and engineers demanding free education.

There was a time when the student protest movement sang revolutionary songs about freedom isn’t free, it is about time the Gen Exers realised this. Tertiary education is a privilege, not a right. 

 A much fairer and more equitable system would be a user pays scheme perhaps based on the Australian model of the higher education contribution scheme. Students wishing to study can accept State funding and have to repay the money when they start working and paying tax. By using the student’s Identity Number, they are hooked into a system that will allow them to study and pass or fail at their own cost. 

By the time they start out on their career path, the taxman will collect what is owed. This would be a much fairer scheme for all concerned.

It is difficult to locate any country in the world that affords students the luxury of free tertiary studies. Tuition fees at universities in Cuba vary between $US20, 000 and $US40, 000 depending on the university and the course of study. The good news is that this is the tuition fee for the whole course, not just for one year.

 Dr Kolbe is a writer and media commentator.

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