A look at the recent student protests and their foreseeable consequences
Wednesday, November 4th, 2015
By Piet le Roux, Head: Solidarity Research Institute
All labour markets are deeply influenced by the educational organisations that feed them. Any upset in education will before long make itself felt in the workplace. For this reason it is important to consider the effects of the more than two weeks of student protests in October 2015 at South African universities, which saw classes cancelled, exams postponed and university fees frozen.
Will the protests and fee freezes lead to better educational outcomes, or not?
Tens of thousands of students from South Africa’s most prestigious universities took to the streets, sometimes even resorting to open violence and vandalism. Ostensibly, the protests were for lower university fees – and even scrapping them altogether. As could be expected, rallying cries lambasted government corruption, without which, it was said, much more money would have been available for subsidising student fees. Both the Freedom Charter and the Constitution, which promise free and/or progressively accessible education, were invoked to legitimise demands.
It was widely lauded that the protests often featured fairly mixed crowds, with white students at times easy to spot and sometimes even at the forefront of events. The apparent student unity across historical racial divides, combined with the bluntly articulated dissatisfaction with government policies and failings, have prompted many to be optimistic. Talk of an “Arab spring” was fuelled when the protests culminated in a march on the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the seat of government. The crowd was eventually dispersed, but only after President Zuma’s announcement of a countrywide 0% university fee increase was driven home by some stun grenades, tear gas and other police measures.
Without doubt, the protests have put significant pressure on the ANC government – a government widely criticised in most media outlets and increasingly vulnerable in its international relations. Important as these stakeholders are to the ANC, its most pressing question will not lie with soothing them, but with maintaining a strong performance at the polls. Not only is it important for the ANC to remain in power (as it is for any political party), it is simply vital, given two things: First, there is its view of itself as a revolutionary movement, destined to achieve complete hegemony over all levers of power in both state and civil society. Second, there is the web of special benefits that it has woven around itself and many of its representatives and members, sometimes considered to be purely corrupt and at other times sanitised through official legislation such as the Broad-Based Black Empowerment Act. Without power, all of this falls away and – as a former editor of Rapport, Tim du Plessis, recently suggested – the ANC is not likely to give that up in the generally accepted way of losing an election.
With local government elections to be held in 2016, President Zuma’s government will be set on ensuring a good performance – and in the light of the student protests, a good deal of it will centre on education policies.
The ANC cannot afford to acknowledge blame for the student protests. It will have to look for a scapegoat, and the scapegoat is and will be universities themselves and so-called anti-transformation elements that prevent ANC policies from being implemented properly. In all major utterances by senior ANC members and government office holders this has been the line taken, most prominently in President Zuma’s media conference remarks at the Union Buildings where he announced the fee freeze. It has subsequently been put even more directly by Minister Malusi Gigaba, who said that “university councils and administrations hide behind institutional autonomy both to swindle parents and students.” Likewise, in the debate on higher education transformation in parliament on 27 October, Minister Blade Nzimande made sure to suggest that government was trying its best to promote transformation but that key stakeholders were not assisting and that a wealth tax, à la Professor Thomas Piketty, might be what is necessary to get the private sector to do what he deems to be their part.
What does this mean for education in South Africa over the next few years? In all likelihood, 1) institutional autonomy will be seriously undermined; 2) university fee growth will be restricted, but with limited places at these institutions, rationing mechanisms will be developed to allocate places; and 3) additional taxes will be levied to pay for extra spending on higher education. Basically, government will do much more of what it has been doing to education over the past 20 years. In short, more people may attend, but the quality of outcomes will deteriorate.
For prospective labour market entrants who are able to make imaginative educational and training decisions, the next few years will be a good time to shine, because much of what will be delivered from increasingly bureaucratised educational institutions will be mediocre or worse.