It is becoming quite apparent that South Africa’s collective memory is riddled with gaping holes. We forget too easily and by doing so we are allowing the hyenas to run wild, which is risking our future. Our country is not simply seized by a season of discontent but rather there is a growing sense that we are also totally rudderless. It will not be enough for us to pray or to talk about deliverance from this mess. The movement captured under the banner of #FeesMustFall has again highlighted those fractures and focused our attention on the sluggish and short-sighted thinking demonstrated by people that are required to lead.
At the start of this week, Dr Blade Nzimande, our Minister of Higher Education and Training, announced that his department and government had not found a real solution to the impasse and instead had settled on the idea that universities could increase fees by up to 8% with the proviso that families with household incomes of less than R600,000 could apply to have that increase subsidised by government.
This is the type of thinking that has not resolved the impasse but instead has led to an escalation of tension and uncertainty across our university campuses. It is important to note that some would regard Nzimande’s position as being pro-poor and that it would be fair to say that there is the introduction of a more nuanced approach than Zuma’s announcement last year of a 0% increase.
Nzimande spelt out government’s commitment to protecting the “missing middle” with interventions through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme. National Treasury has also indicated in a statement that it “has been exploring different mechanisms of finding the money to pay for the subsidy”. However, we all know that in this constrained fiscal environment it is going to be difficult to find R2.5-billion and already the measured position of higher education, with the backdrop of the statement from National Treasury, has been rejected with renewed calls for free education from students.
The issue of free education is not an isolated one, especially in these difficult times, which in large part has been caused by a bloated, fractured government coupled with the abysmal performance by Zuma. Savings suggested by National Treasury should not only be made within government departments but also in the size and structure of Zuma’s government. The question all South Africans should be asking is how will we collectively move beyond the impasse and restore the promise that our education system should be offering South Africans?
We are not simply at a crossroads on issues of education. We are questioning the very fabric of this fractured and imperfect union and it is being challenged very boldly today. It is being challenged not only by feckless employees in the form of Jacob Zuma, Dudu Myeni, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, Jonas Makwakwa, Nomgcobo Jiba, Lawrence Mrwebi or any of the other characters in this farce.
But it is also exacerbated by our inability to move beyond talk and on to real change. It is also puzzling that these characters have forgotten that they do not serve from some divine intervention but rather that they are simply employees tasked with delivering. It is also important not to forget that those characters are not the only faces of the hijacking of our democracy but rather are just the poster children of corruption and capture that have placed our country at risk.
The crises we must confront as a country are not confined to issues of access to education alone but also that of inequality, poverty, unemployment and access to basic services. We are in the process of wrestling with our national identity. We are struggling to build on the faltering legacy of those who have come before us but we are also burdened by the flaws and inefficiencies of those at the helm today.
National Treasury’s view may be that “those who can afford to pay do so to enable the state to support the ever increasing numbers of those who deserve support and cannot afford”. Nhlanhla Nene, our former Finance Minister, spoke at the Gordon Institute of Business Science on Tuesday this week and was reported as saying that the “battles the students are fighting are our battles. The money is not only with the Treasury. It is for all of us to come together. Ultimately if the nation pays, the money will have to be found among ourselves”.
However, the risk of leaving that decision to those in government is that the reallocation will not come from a reduced Cabinet size or a reduction in the unnecessary benefits or packages of government officials or even the necessary clampdown on leakage and corruption. Instead, those savings may come from the budgets allocated to basic services, which are desperately needed by millions of South Africans, which will put more South Africans at risk.
Just two weeks ago, Angela Davis, the fearless activist and author, presented South Africa with a powerful manifesto at the 17th Annual Lecture in honour of the late Stephen Bantu Biko. Davis reminded us that our current leaders “are beginning to address unresolved questions and some of the erasures and foreclosures. (But young people) stand on (their) shoulders but … (those leaders) do not provide a steady foundation”.
As Davis remarked, the “revolution we wanted was not the one we produced” but we must act now to solve the bigger issue that is confronting our country. It is the question of our identity and it cannot be left to the current crop of leaders. South Africans must move beyond their own narrow agendas to really begin answering and, more important, acting on the manifesto that is required for our times.
It is the only way that we will ever really tackle issues of inequality, poverty, unemployment, access to basic services and access to education. Only then can we continue on to the next phase of our democratic revolution to struggle for the “unfulfilled promises of the past and therefore give rise to new activisms” that is desperately needed. DM