Now police have rioted outside parliament, attacking protesters in a style that could wake PW Botha from the dead, we have to understand why all this matters. And indeed, the government apparently does think it matters, hence the panicked offer to fund next year’s zero fee increase without thinking through how to pay for it.
So why should the rest of us care?
Students, after all, are in a position of relative privilege. Even those who struggle to make it through their degree and battle to fund themselves are better off than the rural poor who have nothing – no prospect of a job, ever.
Why this matters is that revolutionary change comes from frustrated hope, not from hopelessness. The French Revolution occurred not because France was the worst-off country in Europe but because it was one of the first to emerge from feudalism. It was frustration at the pace of change that caused the revolution. A feudal society on the other hand is very stable. The peasants are stuck in a state of hopelessness. The aristocracy are far too strong to challenge and what little the peasants have can easily be taken away, leaving them to starve.
South Africa today is the most unequal society on the planet. The rural poor and the urban unemployed have very little hope of things getting better. The ANC, like feudal aristocrats, hands down just enough largesse by way of social grants and free but inadequate schooling to prevent total hopelessness. The section of the population that has most reason to be upset about the broken promise of “a better life for all” continues to vote ANC loyally. In the same way, feudal peasants would have willingly given their life for their lord, despite the manifest unfairness of a tiny minority growing wealthy without offering a glimmer of hope to those left out. Why? Because in a state of hopelessness, the hand that gives out inadequate mercies is all you have.
Students are in a different position. They do have hope. Once they graduate, a range of better jobs becomes open to them. But that hope is frustrated because of the high cost of higher education, inadequate financial aid for the poor and a sluggish economy that doesn’t guarantee work even for those who do qualify. An unemployed graduate who has no debt is a potential entrepreneur. Ask Mark Shuttleworth. The NSFAS scheme is not a great substitute for full funding – even if it were adequately funded – because it limits the option of entrepreneurship for unemployed graduates.
Are demands like no fees or no increase ridiculous? No, in the light of the benefit to society. But universities have to cover their costs. Government has created the problem by encouraging universities to increase numbers without covering the costs adequately. Something has to change.
Ideally, government should fund students fully so there is no class or wealth difference at universities. To do so would cost about 10% of tax revenues. You could argue that is a good investment because students who are successful will add significantly to the tax base. However, this ANC government is not about working for the common good, but is about lining the pockets of its cronies, so that is not going to happen. The best we can really hope for is full funding for those who really can’t afford fees.
What student protest can do is to wake up the rest of the excluded population to the fact that this government is not interested in anything but themselves. The big worry is that this turns into another Arab Spring movement that forces change but has no clear agenda of what that change should be. In Egypt, a military dictator was ousted, followed by an elected government that had protestors back out in the street. Next thing Egypt had yet another military dictator. Forcing change is not enough: we need to know what we are demanding. For this reason, we need to start talking seriously about what is really wrong in our society – what the deep entrenched causes of inequality are and how to address them.