The education question, like the land question, requires urgent resolution

By Imraan Buccus

Chaos reigns at our higher education institutions. But this comes as no surprise.

Education is the best route out of poverty. Expanding access to education is the best way to achieve a more equal society. In the new knowledge economy, education is also vital for a competitive economy. If we can’t build a world class education system, and make it widely accessible, we will have to face a future on the periphery of the global economy.

The disastrous state of public schools, especially in former working class black areas, is arguably the single biggest failure of the government. It has condemned millions to a life of permanent poverty. As many experts have pointed out, the problem with our schools is not a failure to spend money on education. In fact we spend more money per child than most countries. The problem is what has been done with the money.

The ANC has never been willing to confront the corruption in SADTU or the nefarious control that SADTU wields over our schools, and the future of our children. It has placed short term political expediency before all else.

Those in power like to shift blame for all its failings to the apartheid past, or ‘white monopoly capital’. But when it comes to education the bulk of the responsibility for the disastrous situation in our schools must be firmly laid at the door of the post-apartheid order.

In the case of universities things are more complex. Certainly, the ANC is responsible for the failure to develop a funding model that can ensure that no child with the capacity to succeed is turned away from university. But universities like UCT and Rhodes are themselves responsible for twenty years of pandering to the racism in their curricula.

The student protests that swept the country in 2015 and 2016 were quite correct to note that some institutions had failed to address racist curricula. They were also correct to note that students from poor and working class backgrounds continued to be excluded from higher education. However, Zuma’s forces quickly wormed their way into these protests. The tiny but vociferous pro-Zuma and pro-Gupta outfit Black First Land First played a key role in some actions at UCT and at WITS.

The charismatic student leader at WITS, Mcebo Dlamini, was said to be a regular visitor at the home of the Minister of State Security. Morris Masutha, who is close to Zuma and his family, was also centrally involved in some moments of the student revolt at Wits.

The pro-Zuma and pro-Gupta forces entered student politics for the same reasons that Mugabe eventually embraced the land movement in Zimbabwe – to distract from their own failings and to shore up their failing credibility. But the pro-Zuma forces, much like the pro-Trump forces in the United States, are also notoriously anti-intellectual. They see universities as hotbeds of critique and dissent. In both cases an opportunity to damage universities would be welcomed as a way to curtail opposition.

The sometimes scurrilous vilification of progressive vice-chancellors was a classic act of deflection and scapegoating. Vice-Chancellors are certainly responsible for failures around curricula but it is the state, and not university officials, that are responsible for policy around funding and access. Deflecting responsibility for fee issues into Vice-Chancellors was grossly irresponsible.

Zuma’s recent announcement that education would now be free for the majority of students was a desperate populist move aimed at winning support for his candidate for the ANC Presidency, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and, perhaps, securing his future beyond the ANC conference. The march to the Durban City Hall last Friday by a new militarised pro-Zuma organisation Umbimbi Lwamabutho, backed by Black First Land First, is a clear indication that Zuma intends to fight on. Umbimbi Lwambutho marched in support of Zuma and also demanded land, the return of the death penalty and the banning of abortion.

The pro-Zuma and pro-Gupta forces have seized on the land and education questions because these are vital questions that require an urgent resolution. However, they are using their posturing around these questions to justify their kleptocratic politics.

The EFF has also acted in a highly irresponsible manner by asking would-be students to just show up at universities without having made applications. This is populism of the worst kind. As many have noted there are real risks of another stampede like that that cost a mother her life at UJ some years back.

We should never forget that Julius Malema, along with people like Fikile Mbalula, was a primary actor in the degeneration of the ANC and the disastrous rise of Zuma. The fact that Malema is now hostile to Zuma does not mean that he is a credible alternative.

The education question, like the land question, requires urgent resolution. But that resolution must be carefully considered and implemented in the interests of the country as a whole. We cannot afford for Zuma and his hangers-on to exploit these urgent questions for their own narrow and destructive interests.

The progressive forces – social movements, trade unions, academics, religious leaders etc – need to unite and build a credible united front in support of the resolution of urgent questions like access to land and education. If no progressive bloc does emerge the terrain will be left open for Zuma and other dangerous populists.

Buccus is editor of Al Qalam, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad program on political transformation. Buccus promotes #Reading Revolution via Books@Antique at Antique Café in Morningside

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