Defend Truth


Reflections on ‘Free Education”’ from Sao Paulo to Cape Town – Part 1

Brian Kamanzi is a Cape Town-based writer and electrical engineering Masters student at the University of Cape Town. He describes himself as committed to the social upliftment of his fellow people. He is a budding Pan-Africanist eager to make contributions to the movement and form cross-cultural connections with others in the struggle. Follow his writing online at

The debates across, but not limited to, South Africa around the possibilities and effects of “Free Education” have firmly entered popular political discourse after years of rumbling demands from students, workers and communities alike against inequality and the various institutions that produce it.

The student uprisings of 2015/16 afford us an opportunity to re-imagine and contest the role of education in our society while directly and indirectly calling into question the purportedly emancipatory project of South Africa’s fading rainbow nation. In contrast, the post-dictatorship Brazil that was propelled forward through broad-based coalitions left movements forged in the notion of the Brazilian “racial democracy”, which has come under sharp critique by numerous Afro-Brazilian writers who continue to point to the alarming impact of the mass murder of Afro-Brazilians by state police along with incarceration statistics that reify the long relationship of prison systems with the effects of slavery and the establishment of colonialism.

In both contexts the rise of critiques against “colour-blindness” and superficial versions of nonracialism have begun to rise to the surface in different ways in their contexts, from increased self-identification with “blackness” on census surveys in Brazil to the resurgence in popularity of the  black consciousness discourse in South Africa.

One of the most important features of the critiques levelled against our spaces have been the ways in which South African Rainbowism and Brazilian “Racial Democracy” have exceptionalised their problems in ways that dislocate the problems of racialist capitalist patriarchy in these countries from the countless other versions across the globe. To this effect I would like to interrogate and hold a mirror up between a couple of institutions in both countries in the hope of strengthening transnational debates that can help us break from the isolated gridlocks we presently find ourselves in.

Through this piece I will discuss the historical formation of the Universidade de São Paulo (USP) and Universidade Federal do ABC in São Paulo state, Brazil, in contrast with that of the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in the city of Cape Town.

Photo: ‘Assembly to defend Education’, taken at UFABC in Santo André in São Paulo state. Photo: Brian Kamanzi

Brazil and South Africa both allow private and public universities with their most elite and reputable institutions to date located in the public federal system. The Brazilian Federal universities system operates on a fee-free “Free Education” model, using standardised testing schemes – named “Vestibular” – for entry, which has historically been the case, and benefits students with higher family income who went to better resourced schools. Brazil, with a population of over 200-million, has over 2,600 private and public institutions of different sizes and levels of autonomy in relation to the state catering for 6.7-million higher education students in Brazil.

Focusing on the public system, Brazil has 98 state and federal universities, of which one million were enrolled in federal institutions, 620,000 in state institutions, with one of the highest enrolment increase rates in the world over the past two decades.

South Africa has 23 public institutions largely differentiated as historically white and black institutions with only two campuses built in post-apartheid South Africa – Sol Plaatje University and the University of Mpumalanga.

The private and public universities in SA are fee-paying institutions which offer differentiated degrees of financial aid along with a national loans system which operates across the country. By 2013 South Africa’s 23 higher education institutions catering for its population of just over 50-million saw higher education enrolment rise to 983,698 from 837,776 in 2009 – which included full-time and part time students, according to an annual report from the Department of Higher education in the 2014/15.

Now, narrowing our frame we look to Brazil at the case of the University of São Paulo which is the country’s oldest university, evolving out of the regrouping and expansion of existing schools forming a “university” 1934 post the loss of São Paulo state against the 1930 coup d’état of Brazil by Getúlio Vargas. The university, born out of the settler colonial apparatus established by a group of businessmen, formed part of the modernising project for elite white Brazilians who sought to strengthen their institutions.

In a recent social media post by Afro-Brazilian and black feminist activist, Taina Aparecida, Silva Santos, she highlights the historical foundation of the agricultural school as part of the brainchild of slave owner Luiz de Queiroz, drawing attention to the hypocrisy of the institution’s consistent resistance of affirmative action reforms. In the contemporary era USP was ranked 132nd in the 2014-15 QS World university rankings with its strong research focus and caters for over 90,000 students including over 2,500 international students who also receive free tuition.

The now former president Dilma Rouseff signed in a quota for public schools given the extreme bias of the educational system towards private secondary school students. The students gaining entry with quotas would have to spend extra years in the system with preparation programmes and would be paid a stipend equivalent to minimum wage. USP does not, at present, include quotas across the board for black and indigenous groups with these groups in 2013 broadly making up around 34% of the population, only occupying 7.7% of the seats in the undergraduate programme. Black women, part of black consciousness movements, led protests on the campus in 2012 which continue to organise in different ways till today, using methods such as marches, forums and occupations.
Universidade Federal de ABC was established, integrating facilities in Santo André in São Paulo state in 2004 through former president Lula’s administration. The university was built in a working-class area in an effort to broaden and decentralise access to higher education. Its strength is purportedly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and the campus works to bolster, among other things, the local metallurgical industries.

The admissions are regulated also by the vestibular test and 50% of the seats are reserved for public secondary school applicants and students self-identifying as Afro-Brazilian or with the Indigenous peoples of Brazil. Through the activism of staff and students, affirmative action quotas were also achieved for postgraduate students.

As a federal university the campus is also fee-free with free transport to selected areas and stipends inclusive of a housing allowance as there are no residences. With just over 8,000 students by 2012 the campus also has cafeterias with cross-subsidised affordable food where staff pays about R$10 (R44) and students pay approx. R$2.50 (R11).

In a recent visit to the UFABC campus our contingent was fortunate to engage with a number of lecturers and students from the school who shared strikingly similar stories pushed back against the notion of “Latin American Philosophy” and inclusion of African or Afro-descendent thinkers into their programmes.

The campus itself purports a strong “global south” outlook with imagery from India, Vietnam, and Ghana among others decorating the walls. We were told of work that was done to establish courses in world political economy anchored in the global south. The campus offered the first interdisciplinary bachelors’ programme with two main streams which included a Bachelor of Science and Technology and a Bachelor of Science and the humanities.

Looking to South Africa, UCT, built in the leafy elite suburban areas of Cape Town, is a public research institution and the oldest university in the country; it also evolved through the schools that were built in the then British colony and was elevated to the category of “university” in 1914. Large portions of the land that helped found the campus were donated by the infamous megalomaniac of a businessman, Cecil John Rhodes – whose legacy has come into sharp focus through student protests at the intuition and internationally.

With over 26,000 students, the university stands at 191 in a QS world university ranking conducted in 2015/16. Between 2008 and 2013 the university student profile, consisting of self-identifying black, coloured and Indian South Africans (under apartheid definitions), rose from 51% to 58%, largely attributed to quotas and various metrics measuring disadvantage.

The university has since come under massive fire, especially from student pressure, on the unrepresentative profile of lecturers and students in relation to the country’s population. The debates around curriculum, notably similar to some of those discussed in the case of UFABC, raise tensions around the lack of inclusion on African-centred content in the humanities in particular.

Vocal academics such as Philosophy HOD David Benatar have consistently been scathing at African philosophy notions of “institutional racism” and so on. Notably UCT also offers additional financial aid to a sector of students not covered by the state fee loan system which it is able to afford in part thanks to the substantial endowments accrued over the colonial and apartheid eras respectively.

The University of the Western Cape was built in the largely working class suburb of Bellville, Cape Town, in 1959. UWC initially established as a “bush college” catering largely for communities categorised as coloured during the apartheid era. A long history of strikes and creative resistance against inferior education and the apartheid project remain central to the formation of the institution. Former university rector Jakes Gerwel dubbed the institution the “intellectual home of the left” in the early ‘90s as the university expanded its levels of access to disadvantaged communities and expanding its facilities; it now works with over 22,000 students.

Their Flagship on Critical Thought in African Humanities of the Centre for Humanities Research project in collaboration with the state focuses on themes such as “Aesthetic Education”, “Becoming Technical of the Human”, and “Migrating Violence” – this programme among several others reads interestingly alongside the interdisciplinary approach of UFABC and prompts me to wonder whether sharing and collaboration can be facilitated to bolster these institutions which on the surface have different strengths but similar aspirations.

In thinking through the evolution of the “university” project in both of these settler colonial contexts it seems to me to be self-evident that while access to tertiary level has broadened somewhat, the form and function of the institutions reflect the features of historical inequality in these territories.

This, in my view, implies that there are significant and important lessons to learnt for advocates for “Free Education” in South Africa from the situation in Brazil. If the “university” in these contexts was forged to up-skill white elites it should be clear that simply increasing the body count of formerly excluded peoples does not automatically change the reproduction of the institution.

It is therefore no surprise that student protests and curriculum demands have followed broader inclusion. The bizarre result of Brazil’s free public institutions primarily servicing the private secondary layer offers stark warnings to South African activists that the principles of commodification of education and redistribution of wealth and resources cannot simply exist for the top of a tiered albeit differentiated education system.

The use of benchmarking tests for “quality control” of applicants as a gate-keeping method, particularly for elite spaces, has a strong and long international legacy. If policy adjustments such as affirmative action requirements and quotas of various permutations continue to become short-term tangible sites of struggle we must begin to have longer-term conversations around how we can work towards a situation where coercive policies are not necessary.

Anti-democratic, deeply colonial university council-senate structures are set up to control the institutions in line with the historical fate of the alumni and forefathers of those who these institutions were originally intended for. In my reading of things, people who have partial or recent access to civil rights, particularly in settler colonies, require counterweights against the private elite control who seek to keep their channels to Europe open.

The only institution I can think of capable of providing this function at this time is the state which therefore puts the present political urgencies in the foreground of the question of what is to be done. At UFABC we heard talk of fears of austerity measures coming from the incumbent Temer regime, a post-palace coup d’etat that threatens the extensive social welfare network in education and healthcare in Brazil, forebodingly warning of privatisation in the not too distant future should reorganisation not take root.

In the post-social democratic era I think there are important lessons on the massifaction of tertiary education across contexts in the global south. The competing tensions of affordability and the urgent need to increase access create steep challenges for our countries in difficult and unstable fiscal and political climates. In the case of South Africa, I reflect on the likes of UFABC and wonder if perhaps the broad-based Free Education movement should begin to demand the building of several more, perhaps smaller institutions, which may be more fertile spaces to conceptualise “decolonised” and/or contextually relevant curricula embedded in communities marginalised by the present network of systems. This of course is not to say that elite institutions in particular should be abandoned as a site of struggle but as an acknowledgement that the resolution of the impasses does not simply rely on the ability of the spaces in particular to change.

The very purpose of education from birth to grave has been, and continues to be, an aggressively contested question across the globe and in a moment when colonial institutions have broadened their scope, however unwittingly, we are left with contradictions, opportunities and obstacles aplenty. The notion of what knowledges matter and who is contained within the “universal” constructed in part by the “uni”-versity is undoubtedly a question of power that itself must be brought to crisis.

With this said, in reflecting on these various contexts I am left with the sense that the Goliath effort of providing services at this scale requires creative and sober thinking on what “gains” can and should be protected as we push forward on contemporary struggles. Decades of building and subversion have gone into some of these institutions and we underestimate the extent to which our local and parochial battles are shared in profound ways oceans and continents away. This is not a romantic point to labour but in fact a deeply practical one, if a genuine interest exists for us to change development tracks away from the dead-end Euro-modern project, then things like appealing to its self-aggrandising ranking systems which operate like control schemes will get us nowhere.

In imagining new futures, who do we see as our peers, no, as our comrades in the pursuit of emancipatory social projects? How do we begin to build alliances in the global south to go beyond the likes of BRICS that can surely only deepen local hegemonies? To me it has never been clearer that the horizon of a better tomorrow lies beyond our marching feet – the question remains whether we will be able to force our gaze away from global north and commit to rediscovering the “dark continents” that have been constructed in the wake of its extractive and exploitative vision.

Within the dizziness of change caused by shifting gazes there exist new possibilities for friendships and perhaps new enemies; the process of dreaming and building when held together offers no guarantees. If contemporary scenes are anything to go by then the bid for tomorrow shall be a trial by fire. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

[%% img-description %%]

The Spy Bill: An autocratic roadmap to State Capture 2.0

Join Heidi Swart in conversation with Anton Harber and Marianne Merten as they discuss a concerning push to pass a controversial “Spy Bill” into law by May 2024. Tues 5 Dec at 12pm, live, online and free of charge.