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Student fees are important, but so are health, pensions, child support and a basic income grant

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Tim Trengove Jones taught English Literature at the University of the Witwatersrand for many years. He has written widely on cultural and political issues in scholarly journals as well as in the local and international media.

Mthokozisi Ntumba is dead. The #FeesMustFall protests are back. Government will appoint a committee. Tragically, it will take a great deal more than all of this to address the manifold problems symptomatised by this annual carnival.

Although some variant of the #FeesMustFall saga returns with metronomic regularity at the start of each academic year, it always seems to catch both government and universities by surprise. 

The week ending on Friday, 12 March 2021, saw student protests at the universities of the Free State, Cape Town, Wits and Pretoria; government “reprioritising” the budget for the higher education sector, and “an innocent bystander”, Mthokozisi Ntumba, a 35-year-old father of three, and a recent MA graduate, dead. 

All of this, especially the death of Ntumba, is unspeakable, yet it generates a relentless flow of verbiage, from President Cyril Ramaphosa, to the Wits SRC, to Police Minister Bheki Cele, “condolences” are offered to the Ntumba family. President of the Wits SRC, Mpendulo Mfeka, assures us that Ntumba “did not die in vain”, and on Friday, 12 March, the Wits SRC calls for De Beer Street in Braamfontein to be renamed after the dead husband and father to ensure that he “did not die in vain”. 

As we rush ahead from one statement and incident to the next, afflicted with rolling mass media coverage of student “unrest”, let’s reflect for a minute. 

Firstly, Ntumba’s death is a mordant reminder of the intricate interconnections within a polis, of the deeper relations of things. Despite attempts by the Wits SRC to appropriate his name as a martyr in their struggle, he had no direct involvement with the protest. He was allegedly shot by one or more policemen, engaged in what is ironically called “public order policing”. While we await proper investigation, we rest for now with the police minister’s callously inadequate assertion that “someone, for me, just went crazy”. And Ntumba is dead. 

Dead just as Andries Tatane is dead, also having been shot by the police with rubber bullets in Ficksburg on 13 April 2011. Tatane had attended university but did not graduate. He began an organisation called “I Can Learn”, and tutored maths and science in local schools. In a shockingly prescient reminiscence of Tatane published recently in Daily Maverick, his nephew, Mohau Tsoeu, is quoted as saying: “My community has forgotten about Andries.” 

In youthful zeal for his specific programme, Mfeka has the gall to appropriate Ntumba’s name, and assert that Ntumba “did not die in vain”. The callous arrogance of youth. 

My second point is implicit: the deep interconnections of things can escape those who lack historical memory. Tatane died in a “service delivery protest”, one especially concerned with water supply and local government corruption. 

Thirdly, we have limited accountability, something inherent in our voting structures and perpetuated and intensified by “cadre deployment”. This means that only “disruption”/“service delivery protests” might issue improvements in the government’s attention to its constitutionally required obligations. Whatever their stripe, these protests are about efficient administration and implementation of resources. It is gruesomely trite to rehearse the litany of corruption and nepotism that fritters away our tax revenue. The DM article on Tatane revealed little or no improvement in Ficksburg’s service delivery over 10 years, and offered further evidence of corruption and incompetence. 

Fourthly, delay, and endless appointments of commissions. Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande announced on Thursday, 11 March, that Cabinet had decided to appoint a committee to look into a sustainable model of financing for the higher education sector. This makes clear that the current model is not sustainable. This we have known since at least the issue of the Heher Commission report on 13 November 2017. As we all recall, that 748-page tome concluded that fee-free higher education was not feasible “in the foreseeable future”. 

These students are now in danger of being left behind, something that points to the increasing impoverishment of “lower-middle-class” households. As increasingly more people scramble for funds to try to enable their children’s education, we see an increasing class polarisation. 

Fifth, we have the famous South African gap between policy and implementation. Nzimande has recently received flak for suggesting that former President Jacob Zuma precipitated the higher education funding problem by announcing, just over a month after the release of the Heher Report, that as of January 2018, all academically eligible students would receive fee-free university education (16 December 2017). Zuma did accept the Heher recommendation that funding for higher education should increase from 0.68% of GDP to 1% within five years. This has not happened, and is one reason for our current impasse. As Professor Ahmed Bawa, CEO of Universities South Africa, told Newzroom Afrika on 11 March 2021, there “has been a steady decline in subsidies for students over the past 10-12 years”. If the government announces a decision, we have, at the very least, the right to expect that it is carefully considered, well-targeted, and will be adequately resourced. 

Nzimande tells us that Cabinet acknowledges that “current funding mechanisms are not sustainable”. The Heher Commission told us that in November 2017, and that was before Zuma’s reckless pronouncement of December 2017. 

Sixth – and again this points to the deeper relations of things – there is no such thing as “fee-free education”, as everyone has said. To be more specific, we saw increases in both personal income tax rates, and in VAT which was motivated, in part, by a need to fund higher education. It needs to be repeated, that VAT applies to all, and disproportionately to lower income families. Not only that, but in order to “compensate” for the effects of increased VAT on the poor, social grants to be increased, creating yet greater strain on an already overstretched fiscus. It would seem that when student leaders point to the failure of the 1% VAT increase to issue a “free education for all”, they forget one (inevitable) consequence of the VAT increase. 

Seventh, as the sixth point shows, Treasury has to balance a number of demands. I have yet to hear any student advance a coherent argument – or even address – why it is that students should be favoured over health, or pensions, or child support or a basic income grant. Do the (not unreasonable) demands for laptops for all trump the (not unreasonable) demands for clean water and efficient waste disposal? 

Eighth, “the missing middle” that is, those with a household income of less than R350,000 per annum. This is a class argument. Most of the student arguments so far this time are about “poor and working-class students”. Those with a household income of over R350,000 per annum are in a parlous condition. It is these students who are mostly affected by “historical debt,” and are barred from registration. These students are now in danger of being left behind, something that points to the increasing impoverishment of “lower-middle-class” households. As increasingly more people scramble for funds to try to enable their children’s education, we see an increasing class polarisation. 

Ninth, it can be argued that the VAT increases, and increases in personal income tax, further impoverished many South African households. For this, the #FeesMustFall demonstrations are directly responsible. The “reprioritisation” that might (temporarily) ease the fees matter, has not resulted in any “more money”. What we wait to hear is how these reprioritisations will affect infrastructure, spend, accommodation, salaries, and research. Students will find themselves admitted, but to increasingly limited and degraded institutions. 

Tenth, and last for now: “Wasteful expenditure”. While figures vary from institution to institution and faculty to faculty, the “drop-out” rate from universities is horrifyingly high, with the government’s acceptable target of 80% throughput far from being achieved. There are many reasons for this, ranging from poor secondary schooling and inappropriate choice of study fields to financial difficulties. Financial “exclusion” is only one element in a mosaic of problems. None of these – and there are more – is easy to solve. But the simple point for now is that if one has a drop-out rate of around 40%, there is a dreadful waste of resources of all kinds. Furthermore, “failure” at university/tertiary level – as at any other educational level – adds to the growing despondency and anger among our youth. It also dismays and annoys taxpayers who do not see the realisation of Treasury’s commitment to “economic development, good governance, social progress and a rising standard of living for all”. 

Ntumba is dead. #FeesMustFall protests are back. Government will appoint a committee. Tragically, it will take a great deal more than all of this to address the manifold problems symptomatised by this annual carnival. 

We talk of progress, and a better life for all. Who is “innocent” in all of this? DM

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  • Isn’t this the most basic problem living in an increasingly complex world? There is only one cause to a situation; there is only one outcome necessary to rectify it. But then, that is the nature of activism – elevating one of many to the only.

    • The problem with the current form of activism is the inability to concede even the most obvious elephants in the room if they are inconvenient for the activist. If they are mentioned, they are simplified to triviality. Difficult to find solutions if you cannot even admit the full problem properly.

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