Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Have the people of South Africa really won a big victory over student fees?

The South African government's surrender in the student revolt - no university fee increases - is a panic reaction that was entirely predictable and is designed to buy time once more. The ruling party had no democratic alternative. With another heavy sigh then, okay.

But before rushing to agree with a euphoric press and its commentators that ‘the people’ have ‘won’, there are some points that need to be considered.

Even in a completely just and fair society - a wholly unachievable ideal in any case - it is difficult to see how free higher education for all could be made to work or even be a requirement. The issue of costs aside, tertiary education in the long term can only be for those who merit it and want it, if only because there will always be people who do not merit it or want it.

Right now, though, let us accept the uproar is about the short term, a problem of inequality that can no longer be shelved.

Far too many students quite rightly feel they have been cheated, or will be cheated in future, of the full benefits of a university education through the inadequacies of primary and secondary education. Others, after the toughest struggles to get to university, find they are expected to cope with more problems: arbitrary increases in fees and other charges that are impossible for them to cover.

What everyone needs, government first of all, students, universities and the wider public, is a clear and workable policy on tertiary education. There was no understanding, let alone agreement between parties on a national plan and, after the major crisis this neglect has caused, made worse by some inevitable hooliganism, a plan is now unlikely to be agreed in the near future.

The basic question is: should tertiary education be free? If government decides it should, they must be able to make it work; if they cannot make it work, they must change the policy. That is inescapable whoever is in power: it is only necessary to put yourself in government's position, pose the question, and see where it leads.

However, there are intractable political problems behind it all. Cheered on by their supporters and a media fearful of appearing on the wrong side, radicals and activists among students as well as politicians, grab the limelight with opportunist demands for apologies, changes in courses and the end of outsourcing. 

To keep up, the African National Congress as a party says one thing, taking the side of the students, while leaving their own government to carry the can when there is no money to pay for free education for all. Who is making policy then? Who is in charge - party or executive? Who among the ANC is running the country? Who and what is the nature of the ANC government the majority will almost certainly vote into power again next time?

The student revolt is not only about social justice or the lack of it. The paralysis in SA's party-state has been laid bare: a fiscus and tax burden that have not been considered; a minister of education who is not to be held responsible for his performance in the job; a Cabinet that protects him and passes the buck.

People will disagree whether SA needs a new minister and president. But democracy needs a government that is in charge until the voters throw them out for getting things wrong.