The Department of Higher Education’s response to the fees crisis by increasing access to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) has proven not to be the lifeline it was touted to be in early 2017. In fact the General Secretary of the South African Communist Party, (SACP), and minister of Higher Education, Dr. Blade Nzimande has doomed an entire generation of African youth to modern day slavery through forced indebtedness.
The crisis in South African university campuses is a direct response to the post 1994 racist and colonial socio-economic structure of South Africa. The majority of the students on campuses come from African working class families who are already overburdened financially. Of those who work, a staggering sixty per cent earn below R4 100 per month. The parents of many of these students make huge financial sacrifices to ensure their children can access higher education.
It is time for the ANC and its Alliance to get serious about removing all vestiges of structural Apartheid. Free, quality decolonised education is the starting point. A true revolutionary would be more concerned with how to implement free quality and decolonised education instead of questioning its feasibility.
Despite the rhetoric of the ANC and its Alliance partners, this government has shown itself to have completely abandoned the Freedom Charter and all pretensions for socialist ideals. Dr. Nzimande and his ilk are nothing more than cheerleaders for neo-colonialism, who facilitate the oppression and exploitation of the African working class.
Increasing the level of debt of the working class is the cornerstone of the neo-liberal economy that the ANC government supports. It is no surprise therefore that the man tasked with growing the NSFAS debt book is none other than banker Sizwe Nxasana, formerly with First Rand.
Jeremy Brunger, a social economist has been sharply critical of debt loans as the solution to accessing higher education. In his article, “The Poverty Machine: Student Debt, Class Society and Securing Bonded Labour, he writes:
“The most worrying facet of this indebting process is the public insistence that students from low income families attend university on credit. Born into poverty, they can expect to continue enduring it even upon graduation, even if they amass the scholarships and grants that are geared to supporting them. “
Once they graduate, Brunger goes on to say, “The saturated labour market will force many desperate young people into accepting any kind of employment because of the debt burden.”
Therefore, this forced indebting of working class students, before they have even had the chance to earn a single pay check, does not end the cycle of poverty. Furthermore, the costs of servicing debt in this country are already very high, resulting in seventy-seven per cent of South African households with no money to save at the end of the month. Education loans are clearly not the solution.
NSFAS is an inadequate solution to a complex problem. NSFAS doesn’t guarantee money for books, accommodation or even food. Despite loans and bursaries, thousands of students suffer the daily indignity of squatting and sleeping in dodgy and dangerous places. They are often forced to attend classes on empty stomachs and even if they survive this, they have to fight academic or financial exclusion from the institutions annually.
African and black students from poor and working class families are enraged at the extent of their suffering, and who can blame them? The post 1994 political deal has failed them. For too long they have been fed the lie that they are free, yet for many, every day is an epic battle for survival.
For the last 23 years the ANC government has implemented GEAR, the National Development Plan (NDP) and all kinds of neo-liberal economic policies with built-in mechanisms to limit social spending. The policies have deepened the economic divide – the rich are even richer now than they ever were, and the poor are worse off.
Apartheid deliberately used access to education as a weapon against the African majority. As minister of education in P.W. Botha’s cabinet, the last Apartheid president F.W. De Klerk ensured that Africans were subjected to an inferior education system to cement their status as cheap labour. After 1994, the high cost of education at the nation’s public institutions is used to exclude the African majority.
The ANC has responded to the crisis just like the Apartheid government would have. It has encouraged increased securitization at the institutions, thus heightening the possibility of a violent confrontation between students and the state and private armed security apparatus. Students have been assaulted and jailed for long periods, and at least one person has been killed in 2017.
#FeesMustFall activist Bonginkosi Khanyile languished in jail for six months and was denied bail for his role in the protests. The state viewed his actions of throwing rocks at police to be of a far greater threat than the actions of some rapists and murderers. The #FeesMustFall movement is an example of the social unrest that we will continue to see as long as the ANC government carries on the self-destructive neoliberal path it has chosen. The ring of fire of discontent which Comrade Zwelinzima Vavi, the General Secretary of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), warned about in 2010 is tightening. The frustration of the masses is no longer confined to the townships where service delivery protests take place on a daily basis, but has moved to spaces which are revered by elitists, such as rich white university campuses. This should not surprise us because the daily brutality of the capitalist economic system fuels the rage, which in turn causes the violence.
The economic policies the ANC government has implemented since 1994 are designed to maintain the economic structure and social system of Apartheid. Nearly 23 years down the road the economy is still controlled by the white minority, whilst the African majority continues to languish in poverty and inequality. The majority which is working class, African, female and poor continues to have limited access to quality education, and suffer extremely high levels of youth unemployment.
NUMSA recognizes that universal access to a decolonized, quality education for the African majority is the cornerstone towards achieving social justice and equality in any society. This can only be achieved through the total overthrow of capitalism. As socialists we are determined to show South Africans that we can offer more than scientific and accurate analysis of our problems. We boldly propose solutions, and free, quality and decolonized education is one of our basic pillars. We must learn from the Cubans who demonstrate this in practice. They created one of the world’s best education systems in spite of a long and difficult economic embargo imposed by their imperialist neighbor, the United States.
The students’ struggle is just, and their cause is noble. The #FeesMustFall movement is like the generation of 1976 who were willing to stare down the barrel of a gun in order to achieve the goal of quality education. As the working class we stand in solidarity with them.
Phakamile Hlubi is a former journalist and is the Acting National Spokesperson for the National Union of Metalworkers off South Africa, (NUMSA)