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University concessions on historic student debt are just plasters on a gaping wound

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Thulani Dlamini is a final-year LLB student at UCT with an interest in socio-political issues facing the ordinary South African. He can be found tweeting his thoughts at @Thulani_Dlamini

We move from one student protest to another and the responses from universities and the government seem to always deal with individual demands and not the greater problem. To continue this tradition ensures that we find ourselves in the same situation, doing the same thing year after year.

Late on Saturday evening, the chairperson of the University of Cape Town’s Council sent an email to the “Dear members of the UCT community”. It alerted us to an important decision the Council had made  —  no students would be prevented from registering for the 2021 academic year as a result of debt they had from 2020. This is a welcome step in the right direction — but is it enough?

Email parlance is filled with “dear” and “kind regards” and everything is said “sincerely”, of course. Emails will have you believe that people who have a tense or antagonistic relationship are the closest of friends. This is most definitely not the case between a good proportion of the student body at UCT and those who are part of “management”.

UCT has been one of the battlegrounds in the ongoing struggle for free education and the decolonisation of higher education. The aim of this piece is not to delve into the details of free education or decolonisation, but to highlight the depth of mistrust and brokenness of the relationship between those running institutions of higher education and the students.

What #FeesMustFall showed us in 2015 is that mass mobilisation of students across the country can result in certain victories. After weeks of protest, then president Jacob Zuma announced that tuition fees for 2016 would not be increased. This, like the recent UCT Council decision, was welcomed by many students from various organisations, and some who were unaffiliated.

Amid the celebrations, some said the battle had been won, but free education had not been realised. “The war must continue,” they said. By this point, the movement had splintered, it fizzled out and the academic year had continued and concluded.

Six years later, we as students across the country find ourselves in a similar position. With a particular focus on UCT, it can be said that a battle has been won but the struggle for free education continues. It is my hope that what a student once said during a protest in 2016 at UCT may come true soon : “When UCT or Wits decide something, the other universities will follow.” We can only wait and see whether students with 2020 debt will be allowed to register for this academic year.

The protests across our campuses appear to be a song and dance between students and management where the aim is to dance in rhythm and generally get along. The dancing sometimes takes the form of good-faith engagements between student representative councils and the executive teams of the universities. Other times, the dance resembles the chaotic mass of bodies bumping against each other in tightly packed and poorly lit clubs in times gone by. On quite a humorous occasion, students and former UCT vice-chancellor Max Price engaged in literal song and dance after the signing of an agreement in 2016.

The song and dance is tiring and it comes at great cost to all parties involved. This latest round of dancing had fatal consequences for Mthokozisi Ntumba, a man who was not involved in the protests, but was shot by police with rubber bullets and died as a result of his injuries. The cost of protest should never be measured in lives, especially in a constitutional democracy that protects the right to protest, apparently.

We move from one student protest to another and the responses from universities and the government seem to always deal with individual demands and not the greater problem. To continue this tradition is to remain on a path that ensures that we find ourselves in the same situation, doing the same thing year after year. Victories such as the 0% fee increment won at the end of 2015 and the decision by UCT to allow students with 2020 debt to register, are hard won and bring relief to many students. Unfortunately, this relief has a short lifespan.

It is time for all involved to work on actualising the promise that has been repeatedly made to students. The yearly protests are unsustainable and far too costly to the wellbeing of students. 

That institutions and the government can make such drastic concessions after just more than a week of protest action should be seen as shameful. It is shameful because these quick concessions were made after students put their bodies on the line and faced up to the police, which should be called the South African Police Force, not the South African Police Service. These concessions resemble those made after weeks or even months of sustained protest action. It is strange that they folded so easily.

As students, we have become accustomed to having to fight for every single thing we demand or were promised in this game of inches. We should not have to take to the streets to be allowed to learn. These concessions are welcome and many will rejoice, but we should not have to fight for them. They are nothing but a tiny plaster placed on the gaping wound that is the funding crisis facing higher education in this country.

I hope that 2021 marks the last dance, but I am not holding my breath. DM

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All Comments 8

  • You have skillfully narrated how an ANC electoral promise is a guaranteed lie but you stop short of saying, therefore, I will not vote for liars again.

  • Two of my 3 children went to university. We support student struggles. However, “free education” is unsustainable. If anything, who pays high quality staff? It’s not a one-dimensional issue. But as the author notes, student strikes are now an annual event, as if it’s routine, not as a last resort.

  • What does “decolonising” education mean ? If it means pre-colonial, then maybe I do understand; under trees, with no written word, superstition instead of science, counting from 1 to 10 and then…many. Or ?

  • Here’s a bitter pill to swallow: the ANC is too corrupt and inefficient to bring free, or at least more affordable, education to students. They lied to you.

    The concessions that are made because money is taken from elsewhere, such as post-graduate programmes. This is a fact.

  • The ANC sold you a lemon – there is no chance of free education, as the money is finished, and will have to be taken from other deserving causes. Cadres have stolen it and continue to do so. Mismanagement of SOEs left gaping holes in state finances. So, write it on your stomach – it won’t happen.

  • 26 years of killing the economy leaves not enough money for students to enjoy free education let alone ensure a job exists at the end of this. Vote the ANC out and adopt a non racial capitalist based economy and bring back the wealth of talent that’s has left to grow other economies.

  • >This is a welcome step in the right direction — but is it enough?
    Like shifting chairs on the Titanic. Improved upbringing with FATHERS at home to enforce discipline [assuming THEY know what it means!] instead of being gangsters …. is what’s needed!

  • Hard to believe that Thulani Dlamini is so out of touch with the financial realities of operating a world-class university!
    The university’s ONLY job is to teach, NOT to fund-raise or subsidise students!
    That is the responsibility of the same government that promised free tertiary education!

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