Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Why Student Protest Matters

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.

United: Fly the F-U Skies

I am in the US as part of a sabbatical, for about a month. My wife accompanied me as far as Washington Dulles Airport, then we split – I am in Michigan, she went for a couple of weeks to Peru. South African Airways failed to load our suitcases in Johannesburg, which we only discovered after parting at Washington.

In the US, United Airlines handles SAA’s baggage and that’s where the problem really began.

In South Africa, we are used to whingeing about poor service. In the US, you expect better. Everyone is trained up in being nice and putting the customer first – or at least it seems so. United at first seemed fine – when I arrived in Detroit, they gave me a file reference number and told me when to expect my suitcase to arrive. Much as I expected, it was rerouted to the same flights a day later.

My wife’s situation was a little different. At Washington, her original ticket ended and she switched to an American Airlines flight. To complicate things, she arrived in the midst of a big strike that affected airports. But that cleared in a day or two. What I think really broke things is that United decided to keep things in house and used one of their own flights from Washington to Peru, and the routing I had from them was via Houston and Lima. No doubt that saved them money – they would be charging SAA for handling this for them and they would do better if they didn’t have to pay another airline to take the luggage.

For the last few days leading up to the fifth day, at the end of which the airline would have to pay compensation, United kept stringing me along. Then it turns out they have no record of her suitcase past Lima and – wait for it – don’t want to hear about a compensation claim. The suitcase now has an SAA file reference number on a different tracking system.

Up to that point United had been very happy to handle this – they could perform a service for SAA and profit from the fee. Her suitcase made it as far as Lima on a United flight and now has gone missing. It had one more stop after that: Cusco. Suddenly at the exact point when they (since it is their fault; SAA did not lose the suitcase in Lima) would have to pay compensation, they give me an SAA file reference number and tell me to F off (not quite in those words but their meaning is clear).

If SAA pays compensation, good. I will give them that option (they are so far being cooperative – so I will give them benefit of the doubt). If not, we have the mess of trying to claim from insurance for something that should not be an insurable loss. I will somehow have to get a letter from at least one of the airlines explaining why they are not paying for the loss.

Are they just being horrible to me? No – United has a poor track record on service that the new CEO ought to be prioritizing.

Not too soon as far as I am concerned. I had a flight from hell with United in the 1980s. I had just arrived from South Africa into New York and boarded a flight to Chicago en route to Minneapolis. After we boarded and the doors were closed, we were told there was a delay for bad weather and sat next to the terminal for 3 hours. Once we reached Chicago all outgoing flights had left and instead of putting us up for the night (it was their choice to leave us stranded at around midnight), we were offered a list of discounted hotel rooms. The discounted rooms had all sold out, and I ended up trying to sleep in the airport, not with much success.

This is the first time in 30 years that I’ve flown United, and I didn’t allow enough time for them to improve.

So United, your “Fly the friendly skies” slogan is a tad misleading. I suggest “Fly the F-U skies”. Whether you take that as your attitude to service or my attitude to you is your choice. Both fit.


My wife finally found her suitcase. Someone staying at the same place was returning via the same route and asked after it at the United baggage desk in Lima. They said it had gone to Cusco. My wife had to go to the Cusco airport to drop someone off (not really but shared the taxi) and picked it up. United meanwhile offered to send me a $75 Travel Certificate (which needless to say hasn’t show up yet). How this compensates to 9 days of borrowed clothing and wasting time I don’t know. I certainly can’t use it because I am not resident of the US or anywhere else United operates, and would be embarrassed to give it to someone else after this.

What really beggars the imagination is that a total stranger with the details of the suitcase could walk up to the United baggage desk in Lima and be told where the suitcase was yet United’s internal systems could not track it down. Part of the problem is they don’t answer their phones; I was put on hold 3 times by the United central baggage tracing service and not once were they able to reach their own baggage desk in Lima. I tried calling the SAA baggage desk at Dulles and not only didn’t get a reply but messages left were not returned. Since United handles SAA baggage in the US I would not be surprised if it was in fact United staff who were not taking calls.