God, AIDS, Africa & HOPE

Thoughts, inside, comments of a Catholic priest

What must fall – fees or the South African State?

Whole universities are pitted against one another – the “Wits option” vs the “UCT option”. Some academics are accused of being blindly supportive of “the innocent students” and parading their colours as the immaculate left; while others are seen as blindly securocrat, unreconstructed racists, or terminally bewildered.

So let’s (try to) agree on a modicum of common ground. Remarkably, there is a lot of it about. No-one can reasonably argue that universities are not underfunded. No-one can reasonably argue that the impact of underfunding has been transferred to fee increases, and that in turn, black (primarily African and coloured) students bear the burden. Given the failure of the post-apartheid economy to sufficiently redistribute wealth and the abject failure of trickle-down economics, “black debt” is a reality.

Let’s also accept that for many students, much of the academy is an alienating, overwhelmingly white, Eurocentric space and experience. Students arrive and are expected to meet imported norms, seminar room sarcasm, unknown customs, foreign authors, hard marking and plain hard slog of tertiary education, while being young and going through their own life transitions, and doing so in “othered” spaces, out of vernacular, and so on.

Let us also agree that virtually no university or further education college has genuinely grappled (institutionally, not at the level of the individual) with what it means to decolonise, beyond (at best) looking around quickly for some black/African authors. This is not true at school level, where many advances have been made – but these are islands in an ocean. Students swim in the ocean.

Let’s also accept the dangers of commodified knowledge and universities, and the fact that the system is slowly becoming a sausage machine for lawyers, accountants, MBAs and others deemed economically necessary for the economy. Those schools and faculties seen to add no “dollar value” are discriminated against locally and globally.

I say “let’s agree” because these issues have all been agreed to by both protesters and university management. There may be quibbles over the severity of this or that issue in this or that part of the sector, but the central issues are undisputed.

Divided we fall

So what divides us, and with such vehemence? For the immaculate left, it is ultimately a capitalist state that has no interest in the poor emerging from poverty; overlapping with black people in a society dominated by whiteliness; creating an unreconstructed racial capitalism that needs to be toppled. Students in this view lack agency, and are in every context victims of external forces. Every action is the response of victim to oppressor.

“Senior management” is seen to lead with security, follow up with more security, and have no interest in negotiation or compromise. Students just want a free, decolonised education in a transformed institution and are shot for daring to ask for it – and they remain innocent, brutalised “black bodies”.

For those who are not in this group, there is a basic commitment to teach, and to getting students to complete the academic year. They are disregarded as “liberals”, the ultimate South African insult. Security is regarded as a necessary evil – but since many academics have personally been assaulted and/or abused and/or disrupted, and many targeted for hiding students desperate to learn and/or shielding them from protesters, security seems a basic necessity. The pleas from students for support to finish the year have been incessant.

Returning to class

What is at fault with all these views is the assumption that if protesters win enough compromises – such as sector-wide agreement on free, quality, decolonised education and the need to plan, design and cost it so that it can be an implementable reality not a slogan (being self-evidently not swiftly realised) – they will return to class. And they will do so as victors. We know that the vast majority of non-protesters also want to be back in class – and a great many are there already. But this core assumption is wrong.

Students use shields belonging to private security during clashes with police at Wits University. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

It is increasingly difficult to retreat from the notion that this is an incipient insurrection. While some protesters are undoubtedly idealistic and brave fighters for free quality education, the movement of 2015 has been colonised by political parties and anarchist movements in 2016. A movement without prominent leaders of 2015 has become leaderless in 2016.

Acts of bravery and camaraderie in 2015 have become acts of racist abuse and thuggish violence in 2016. Burning has replaced marching; destruction of university infrastructure is a key goal. This is no longer #FeesMustFall as we knew it – it has become #StateMustFall.

Universities are being used for testing the potential for broader insurrection –- if you can bring down universities you can bring down cities, if you can bring down cities, you can collapse and take control of the state. No compromise will get the core protesters back into class, or satisfy their academic or political mentors, because their goal is so much larger: state capture. It has allegedly been done once under democracy, so why not again?

Who is to blame?

Politics hates a vacuum, more than nature. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) is morally compromised on every front. Seemingly all courts in the land are packed with lawyers attempting to stop good governance and allow uninterrupted bingeing at the trough. The brazen moves to cover various political derrieres are breathtaking – but create space for any other party to claim the moral high ground.

In 1976 during the Soweto youth uprising, protesting students were given political education by mainly the Black Consciousness Movement. Those students went into exile got their education from the liberation movement organisations, the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). Whether they were Africanist – closer to the PAC – or Charterist – aligned with the ANC – they were taught about the democratic state that had to be built and the principles on which it was to be built. Who now provides political education for protesting students?

The ANC is utterly compromised and cannot claim the moral authority to “lead”. The Democratic Alliance and ANC student wings, DASO and Sasco respectively, were loud in proclaiming their various Student Representative Council victories earlier in the year but have vanished from the scene. The prominence of Economic Freedom Fighters leaders – at national and student level – may or may not be relevant. So too the various incarnations of Black First Land First, pan-Africanist student movements and others. We are reduced to using student leaders of the 1980s as mediators, still on the faulty assumption that protesters want to return to class. They don’t. They are far more ambitious than that.

We have to call the bluff of those who keep moving the goalposts. Universities have agreed to free, quality, decolonised education in a transformed institution. Exam dates have been changed. Exam content is being modified to accommodate lost classes. But then the demands shift – we want this fully legislated now, or we won’t return to class. Or, we want amnesty for students suspended after due process regardless of what they did. Or, we want students arrested by police released. And so on and so on. These are patently not demands that the academy has the legal mandate to meet, even if we assume it had the will so to do.

If we do not call this for what it is, we face the danger of realising apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd’s dream – the man who advised us:

There is no place for [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour … What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd.

If, as seems likely, for the second year in a row, university students in South Africa are going to complete only part of their annual curriculum, and will be examined on only part of their curriculum, the result is that every subsequent year is divided between “catching up” on what was missed and squeezing a year of teaching into less time – we face the danger of ensuring that no student will receive even a quality colonised education (an oxymoron for some, of course). We are not educating our students to compete locally or globally. We are crippling them. They are being sacrificed for the few who see state capture as tantalisingly close.

Disclosure statement: David Everatt does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

Filed under: Africa, General, Medical and Research, Networking, Politics and Society, Reflection, Society and living environment, South Africa, , , , , , , , , , , ,

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There is no free education

It is amazing for me to hear again and again about “free education for all” as this slogan misses completely the point. Listening to some of the students commenting on this drama unfolding in South Africa in the moment, I have to ask myself whether they are indeed students. Students should have at least an initial ability of how to understand and analyze a problem which seems to be non-existing in most statements. They sound learned, repeated, memorized like a matric exam. No own thinking needed.

Education is never free – even if tuition fees are falling there are always people picking up the bill for the studies – it will be the taxpayer having this role. To be able to do so for those students not to effort a study, there should be enough taxpayers and less corruption to begin with. So if students want to bring change, they should demand from those in political power to demand circumstances allowing for this dialogue to happen. Burning libraries, burning history and collective memories, destroying facilities only add to the impossibility affording fee free studies.

I also wonder seeing the pictures of violent clashes on campus – where are the parents in this unfortunate battle? Are they silent because they feel the youngster express also their anger against state, society and all the other entities one feels left out? Is the “demand” of the students not rather also silently bolstered protest of those still hurt from Apartheid times and left alone in this pain by the present government?

Another question I ponder: Even if the studies themselves are free – there are other costs for housing, transport, books etc – also all free? Or bursaries which in the moment seemed to be a free for all as not a lot care to pay back and the government allows for it to happen. Watching a report on this topic recently I was quite taken back by a former student explaining in front of a camera that he does not dare to pay 100 Rand back as per loan agreement – even earning a decent salary now himself after having a bursary throughout his studies. No shame, no guilt – he simply did not care – and once again the question: What did parents tell him how to conduct himself in an ethical manner?

Last but not least: I hear students have on their lips: “decolonization of the universities” . Universities are indeed  a colonial institution brought to South Africa. My question would be: do we want to get rid of the universities or what is the aim of the decolonization? I really believe a bit more academic maturity is in this discussion the order of today.

Students have the right to protest, they have the right to be unreasonable in demands, but they don’t have the right to destruction, violence, disturbance – and maybe it is time for the parents to reign in and for the students to concentrate their anger and rightful questions onto those who at the end are responsible for a climate of appropriate and affordable studies: our politicians who are seemingly more interested in their own powers and privileges while wasting the money which could be used for a meaningful compromise in this matter.

Filed under: Africa, General, Networking, Politics and Society, Reflection, Society and living environment, , , , , , , ,

Loving to be a victim

We often talk about victims in South Africa – victims of crime, falling victim to a disease, victims of circumstances, victims of traffic accidents – a never-ending story unfolds when talking about victims. What really got me going this week was the perceived victimization of students. I listened to the comments made by students after all the intimidation, violence,burning of property, throwing stones – and when then taken into custody, they are the victims because the state power did not allow them to continue their destructive actions.
But it is not only the students – it seems that it is in the moment en vogue to be a victim – especially of circumstances, of the wrong time, the wrong advice, the wrong friends, the wrong teachers. It feels, looking around that it is part of the South African soul, searching for its midst, to feel victimized.

It seems that the normality of decency or honesty or respect has been fallen victim too – one is not only entitled to be a victim, but one carries this stigma like a batch of honor or a banner in front of oneself – the world should know that I am hurt, hindered and stopped to be who I want to be because of others and circumstances. And if need be, destruction and violence are my witnesses to my message.
I read this as a sign that the soul and fabric of our society is still deeply hurt and mourning its own past, counting the wounds which were so nicely covered in the first years, the honeymoon of society. And having the Zumas, the Guptas, the Hlaudis and all the others in charge of a deeply disturbed society there is no healing in sight, but only exploitation on most levels and shameless abuse of resources so much-needed to bring about this healing.

Cry beloved country – who does not know this term – maybe this is what is needed – accepting all the pain and hurt and a collective crying about the past and the presence before being able to wipe the tears from each others face and moving forward. This can only happen if we get leaders we deserve, honest and trustworthy leaders, politicians who have the plight of the people instead the filling of their own pockets at heart. It also need church leaders who much more than now engage in the healing process instead of battling long-lost wars within society. Without a sincere leadership in politics, churches and society this country will take a long time to heal . And the first so-called born free generation deserves more than a bleak future driven by the impotence and lack of will of today’s people in charge.

We have overcome Apartheid, we are in the process to hopefully overcome pandemics like HIV – we still have the strength of rising up like the phoenix of the ashes – but for that we must commit to decency and compassion and overcome the somehow sad happiness of being a victim.

Filed under: Africa, General, Politics and Society, Reflection, Religion and Ethics, Society and living environment, South Africa, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Only the central command…

Again we see an up-rise of student protests – this time even HOPE Cape Town is not allowed into or even out of its own offices at Tygerberg Campus of the University of Stellenbosch – patients are barred from entering – and police is standing by, not sure what to do. While students seems not to be engaging in reasonable debate but enjoying the freedom of being unruly to the point of being aggressive, until now Tygerberg Campus was not involved in arson, destructive violence like many other universities. Trying to get our HOPE Cape Town staff in or out and reasoning with students only lead to the comment that the students only take orders from the “central command” which somehow is a reminder of the EFF structure, but they were opposed to the violent student protests. So nobody could tell who the “central command” is.

I guess the “FeesMustFall” movement has lost any credibility after libraries were burning and classrooms demolished. Unfortunately we don’t have a government being honest in saying that a fee free study for all is not financial viable in our days. The announcement of the minister for higher education takes into account the plight of poorer students depending on government while still allowing for a reasonable fee increase for those able to pay.

Fact is that the destruction, the violence and lets’ be honest also the laziness of some students exploiting the chaos lead to a mixture which can’t be tolerated anymore by government. While a meaningful protest is part of democratic freedoms achieved in South Africa – destruction, the loss of meaningful conversations, the “everything-goes” mentality of students who seemingly not value their academic development must stop. Also the from Cosatu toi-toi lent approach to not allow willing colleagues to continue studying but hinder them by all means is beyond the expression of freedom.

Of course – the headless student protests of our days are feeding of the headless society governed by a headless government – it simply filters down that the rule of law can have a back seat for the time being. But that cannot be a reason for denying unrelated employees to go for their work, patients to be treated, destruction of property or fellow students willing to study to deny their right to study. There are rules in a democratic society and the sooner students learn those rules the better it will be for an anyhow fragile society like the South African ones.

So one can only hope that reason prevails, that those wanting to break rules are brought to book and the law takes its course and that the Universities exercise their rights to defend their freedom of science and study up to the teeth. Government must take reasonable steps to ensure that money is not the deciding factor for the chance to study. “Fee-free” for all is not the only answer to this challenge.


Filed under: Africa, General, HOPE Cape Town Association, HOPE Cape Town Trust, Politics and Society, Reflection, Society and living environment

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