Our universities are burning, and nobody has covered themselves in glory in the great fees impasse. However, it is government’s woeful performance, characterised by a vacuum of leadership, which has been the most disturbing aspect of all.
This week, visual reminders of PW Botha’s apartheid-era security state hit our television screens when police opened fire on student protesters at Wits University with rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas as the institution tried to re-open its doors. It could have been 1985, but it’s not an isolated incident. Many of our universities have seen similar clashes of late.
It’s easy to get fixated on these violent clashes and the deeply concerning iron-fist approach of a government paralysed by a leadership that is seemingly more concerned with whether the Guptas have bank accounts than anything else.
But to do so would be to miss the deeper problem: this wave of protests is of far greater significance than last year’s fees protests, with far more ominous overtones.
It is not simply just about university fees any more. These protests have become a lightning rod for the wider discontent in SA society regarding ever-increasing inequality, government’s inability to do anything substantive to address this, and the country’s meandering economic trajectory under President Jacob Zuma.
These protests are a proxy for anger at the politicians’ broken promises, a sense of injustice at an apparent unwillingness of the powerful (those from government and business) to see the dire economic situation of most families, and most fundamentally, a lack of leadership at the very top.
This is evident from numerous talk shows where you’ll hear many polarised views about the student protests, which quickly veer off into diversions about other issues, like SA Airways or Nkandla.
Clichés are tossed around with little clear comprehension of their meaning — words and phrases like "entitlement", "white monopoly capital" and "decolonisation". None of these phrases is useful and none points to a clear path of action.
On those talk shows, you’ll hear people lambasting the protesters when stories of violence arise. It’s easy to get sidetracked by these acts of unacceptable violence, but the debate shouldn’t end there. For a start, these acts are certainly not the norm. Anyway, protest movements have always attracted some people who may not be committed to the cause, but use it as a cover for their own taste for violence.
The news media have also struggled to tell this story properly. Perhaps that is simply because everyone knows that the real issue isn’t just free education, but rather the wider socioeconomic dysfunction — for which the solution is less clear-cut.
So instead, media houses have fixated on the peripheral drama: the arrests, the tear gas, the rocks thrown. All real issues, to be sure — we should never have police indiscriminately thumping whoever is in the way — but it’s not the nub of the issue.
One of the few to show real leadership this week was Adam Habib, the vice-chancellor of Wits University.
Habib asked Wits staff and students to vote on whether to reopen. In the end, 16,739 of 21,730 voted to resume classes, with just 4,991 saying "no". He took the tough decision to open the doors, under the protection of an ill-prepared police force. It was the right decision: to delay any longer would have set SA’s graduate sector back by a year.
On the first issue of "free education", this magazine remains of the view that university education cannot simply be "free" for everyone. People who can afford fees should pay. But equally, those who cannot pay ought to be subsidised.
Government has already said it would find R2.6bn to ensure that the "missing middle" — those whose household income is less than R600,000 — see no fee increases. More creative strategies are needed to ensure those who qualify for tertiary education aren’t locked out.
But the bigger issue — a society growing increasingly restless as it becomes more unequal — is a deeper subject. For a start, real leadership is needed, and it should be willing to take tough decisions. For this, we must look beyond Zuma’s administration.