#FEES MUST FALL: why South Africa needs to listen to its young people.
- 9 Posts
- Age 27
On the morning of March 11, 2015 I was surprised to find police officers and police dogs manning the University of Zimbabwe’s gates. Armed with guns and baton sticks they searched everyone and asked many questions no one could answer. We spent the entire week with them, eating with them in our dining halls, seeing them camped on the University grounds and being searched every morning.
I would later learn that during the weekend before that Monday some flyers had circulated calling for a boycott of lectures to protest among other reasons the lack of academic freedom at the institution. Instead of addressing the problems the University just called in the riot police who by a display of force subdued everyone into silence.
I have come to realise that this is the standard response from the Zimbabwean government every time they are confronted by a disgruntled section of the population. They use the police or military to make the problems go away.
Yet the problems never go away, they just go under the surface, simmering and, like an untreated sickness, festering and spreading until one day everyone sees the true extent of the harm done. By doing this the Zimbabwean government- and indeed most of African governments- fool themselves, behaving like children or the proverbial baboon which in Shona folklore covers its face when attacked, believing that if it cannot see its attackers then they too won’t be able to see it.
A new South Africa
Africa is a land of deferred dreams. A land where problems are ignored and left to fester. What happens to these dreams deferred?
Langston Hughes, the African American poet, offered an answer in the poem Harlem. He said it can dry up like a raisin in the sun, or fester like a sore or just sag – or, he adds as an afterthought- “explode”.
The problems in South Africa seem like they have festered for too long. Are they about to explode?
Of late South Africa has seen many post colonial issues rise to the surface as a young educated population starts to question the existing socio-political order. No longer willing to accept that political freedom in itself is enough, these young people also want to live in a way that reaffirms this freedom, that is, with dignity and also live in a country where they have equal opportunities.
From Julius Malema’s EFF important questions of economic equality to Chumani Maxwele and the #RhodesMustFall movement, from the efforts to stop institutionalised racism in tertiary institutions like #OpenStellenbosch to the ongoing fees strikes, #FeesMustFall, we see a new revolutionary wave led by young people.
This new movement of conscious young Africans is taking advantage of modern communication channels such as social media, in particular Twitter through hashtags, to not only raise awareness but also to coordinate protests and launch petitions.
Most importantly they have managed to take their struggle offline to the people and the streets. Political parties have been formed and protests held and change is seen. The EFF holds seats in Parliament and the #RhodesMustFall protests led to the literal fall of Rhodes.
This new, ongoing protest is no different. It is a genuine movement informed by the prevailing conditions in South Africa. The young people of South Africa are asking how they can get themselves out of poverty if they cannot afford the required tool to combat poverty with, namely education?
By asking these questions they risk ridicule, intimidation, alienation and arrest yet they do not tire. And in so doing they not only win, they also inspire those of us who, I have to admit, have been too cowardly to question our own leaders and demand responsible leadership and accountability.
No Free Lunch?
Economists are fond of saying “there ain’t no such thing as free lunch”. Indeed there is no free lunch, in the end someone pays. What changes is who, when and how.
In other words whatever the South African government does, even making all Universities free, someone will have to pay. This can be in the form of tax payers’ money being taken from other activities to fund the education sector or maybe debt which the students themselves will have to pay at a later date. After all there are salaries to be paid, upgrades to be made, books to be bought and other costs to be met.
This is the rebuttal given to the protestors by the privileged and the powerful. Education, they say, cannot be free because nothing is free.
However South Africa can learn much from other countries such as Germany and the Nordic countries on how to provide access to education without ruining the economy. Even the American debt system can be considered and tweaked, as and when necessary. I think most students would prefer to be educated and in debt rather than not educated at all.
There are many ways the government can intervene to ease the financial burden on students most of whom are poor and black thus historically disadvantaged. The best way to eliminate inequality is by making sure that the opportunities afforded to South Africans of different backgrounds are as equal as is realistically possible.
It would be a real shame if a poor but academically excellent (black) student is deprived the opportunity to extricate himself – and by extension his immediate family (and perhaps South Africa itself) - from poverty because of money. No student should be excluded from a tertiary instution because of financial reasons.
Vox populi, vox Dei
This afternoon members of the South African police used stun grenades on peaceful protestors. It was a wrong step by a police force that has otherwise shown restraint. I say this because I know how the Zimbabwean police would have handled this situation, as many Zimbabweans have pointed out on social media.
What South Africa’s leaders should realise is that the SAPS cannot solve South Africa’s political and socio-economic problems. It has never worked anywhere. It will not work In South Africa.
Political problems require political solutions not military ones.
The Latin phrase “Vox Populi, Vox Dei” translates to The voice of the people is the voice of God. While the clamouring of the masses might not always be divine it is always a rich source of any society’s concerns, problems and even solutions.
At this point the government of South Africa and the University authorities will be best served by dialogue. The young people of South Africa, the young people of this continent, have many genuine concerns that for far too long have fallen on deaf ears.
Africa’s leaders should start listening to the youth. Africa must listen to the majority. South Africa should listen. Now. Before
The South African government- and its people- may one day be thankful that these protests happened when they did- before the country slid into the abyss.
It is an opportunity they should use to come up with sustainable solutions to the country’s social and economic issues.
It’s an opportunity they should not let pass. They are perhaps fortunate- for some countries, like my own Zimbabwe, that horse has already bolted. We might never catch it.
The leaders of South Africa have been presented with a glorious chance to talk and listen to the country’s young people. And listen they must. No country can afford to ignore more than two thirds of its population.
Listening to its young people is the closest South Africa will ever come to hearing God.