Article of the Day – Dear Government: Do Something

It’s been days of protests at campuses around the country. The footage is getting harder to watch. The students are getting angrier. And the police are out in full force, bullets flying.

From Wits, Durban University of Technology, the University of Limpopo, the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the University of Johannesburg, Tshwane University of Technology, Rhodes… Is government watching or listening to the same interviews, footage and pleas as the rest of us?

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande

Students are demanding free education. It’s a far cry from where government is. If you go by what Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande said last week, that is not happening.

Government’s stance is this: the country cannot afford free tertiary education and institutions of higher learning cannot simply absorb the costs. Therefore those who can afford to pay, must do so.

In all fairness, the amount of money availed for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) for loans and bursaries has grown significantly throughout the years. But that is not what’s in dispute.

What the protests are making abundantly clear is that the demand for education is growing, and it’s growing rapidly. The defiance in asking for free education also shows that it is not regarded as a privilege, but a right that government must deliver on.

…students are being dragged through the streets by police and precious public resources are being torched to the ground.

When Minister Nzimande passed the responsibility of deciding on whether to increase fees over to higher education institutions and to a larger extent Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, he excused himself from finding a solution to the bulk of the problem. And, in doing so, he added to the uncertainty that we must endure while we wait for a final solution. Meanwhile, students are being dragged through the streets by police and precious public resources are being torched to the ground.

The argument that those who can afford to must pay is still not resonating with the protesters. No one has in the past few days made any mention of such a compromise.

We are not discussing the fact that students will be affected in different ways, or that the poorest of the poor will not be subjected to any added financial responsibility. That means that another option must be considered.

Students who’ve benefited from NSFAS loans previously have now also been urged to pay back the money they owe. The reality is that many won’t, putting more pressure on a system currently built on money being ploughed back into higher education.

To unpack some of these issues, I spoke to education expert Professor Mary Metcalfe, who explained the anger from students and citizens more broadly as follows, “They believe that government is not prioritising and using resources fairly. There is anger because they see resources being wasted on different projects. They feel that government is out of touch with their aspirations.”

And all of this is true. Wasteful expenditure has become part of our narrative and weak leadership has become part of what we accept to be the norm. And it appears that this status quo can’t be challenged, not even through the courts.

It took our president months to get to the point of paying back money used irregularly for upgrades to his Nkandla home – months of mocking the issue in parliament. It took the highest court in the land to pronounce on the matter after opposition political parties dragged it there. Only then did Jacob Zuma finally address the nation and adhere to the Public Protector’s findings.

Hlaudi Motsoeneng

Hlaudi Motsoeneng, on the other hand, doesn’t want to comment on reports that he was paid a questionable bonus of millions by the SABC – while you and I are urged to pay our TV licences.

The SABC is leaping from crisis to crisis, with Motsoeneng boldly declaring its independence and claiming he can perform miracles wherever he goes.

The ANC’s Jackson Mthembu this week called on parliament to institute an inquiry into the fitness of the SABC board after Motsoeneng was shifted to a new position, calling the goings-on in Auckland Park embarrassing. Mthembu said Motsoeneng’s employment at the SABC was in direct violation of a court ruling.

In March this year Corruption Watch revealed that it had received more than 2,300 complaints of corruption in 2015. The organisation defines corruption as “the abuse of public resources or public power for personal gain”.

…they don’t buy the argument that there simply is no money to ensure that every student receives a decent tertiary education.

These are the instances our children hold up and question when they take to the streets and demand free education. When they don’t buy the argument that there simply is no money to ensure that every student receives a decent tertiary education.

These are the instances that government cannot explain away because many of it played out in full view of all of us. We saw the wrongs being committed, and we saw men like Zuma and Motsoeneng refuse to face the consequences of their abuse of power.

At the end of October, all eyes will be on the Finance Minister when he delivers the medium-term budget policy statement. As uncertainty reigns on many a campus, let’s hope that this occasion will show government taking decisive action to resolve this crisis.

Something has got to give because the anger is not likely to subside, nor is the destruction. This time around, the answer must calm fears and tensions. Our students are telling us in no uncertain terms that they are not giving up this fight. And who can blame them?

Faith Daniels
is a seasoned radio and TV journalist, and is currently head of news at Kagiso Media’s Jacaranda FM and East Coast Radio

This article first appeared on on 29 September 2016

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