Here for a Refund

Here for a Refund

hereforrefundSouth Africa’s student protests just won’t stop. They’re sweeping across the country and are getting serious. Is this the sixties for South Africa?

“Our parents were sold dreams in 1994,” a student leader told the Economist. “We’re here for a refund.”

A third of all South Africans are between 10 and 24 years old, born after the end of apartheid and now attending school at some level subsidized by government.

The protests began about a month ago at the country’s most prestigious science university, Witts, over an announced 10% increase in student tuition. In South Africa all higher universities are funded by the federal government, a similar role to the state governments here.

After two weeks of violent protests, #FeesMustFall resulted in South African President Zuma rescinding all fee increases … for this year.

That barely dampened the moment. Right now protests are continuing at virtually every higher institution in the country, with particularly large and volatile demonstrations in KwaZulu Natal and the Western Cape, but events are changing rapidly.

The country’s most prestigious liberal arts university, UCT (University of Cape Town), was one of the few where classes resumed today following a humiliating apology by its chief executive to students, although small protests continued on campus as well as at Parliament. But in most places in the country, higher education is at a dead stop.

After Zuma announced the rescinding of all fee increases, the protest issues spread like wild fire. “Outsourcing” university workers has now been reversed at the UCT and the Witts CEO has agreed “in principle.”

This is a fundamental issue in South Africa. Several years ago universities discovered huge budget savings if employees previously hired for maintenance, food service, transportation – virtually every industry – were outsourced to large companies.

The universities insisted the large companies hire the existing university employees, which they did, but within a few years benefits, wages and contract negotiations were seriously reduced.

Government subsidies for education based on income are equally under fire, not because students disapprove of the principle, but because it has been so unevenly applied.

The government’s protocol for determining income is rife with corruption and nepotism, often unfairly subsidizing those who are quite affluent while ignoring truly poor students. More interestingly, students are also demanding an end to the notion of minimum performance in secondary schools as a metric for determining subsidies.

What I find so interesting about all of this is that it brings back some deep memories of my own college career which for me was dominated by the anti-War protests.

But as I became more and more involved as a student in those protests, I also became involved in the Civil Rights and Womens movements.

“Trouble had been brewing on campuses for months,” the Economist reports.

The magazine concludes that current protests are congealing into the all-powerful issue of racism, reporting that demonstrators “complain that universities have too few black staff or students. This is true, but largely because, thanks to terrible schools, black South Africans still do much worse in exams than whites, something the ANC has failed to fix.”

Since the end of apartheid the ANC has ruled South Africa, winning election after election, yet it is widely blamed throughout the country for this current and many other predicaments. Zuma’s cavalier flip-flop on fees, which could push the government debt to untenable levels, is typical of the knee-jerking, lack of policy that today characterizes ANC governance.

In the last election the 18-24 year old crowd hardly voted at all.

I don’t think that will be the case the next time around.