Education Imbizo on 3 October 2016

I speak to you on behalf of the nation’s Vice-Chancellors, and I am the bearer of bad news. Our higher education system is in a precarious position. Sixteen of 26 universities are closed, although some will try and open today. Of the ten that are open, many are doing so under trying conditions. If this situation does not change, we will not be able to graduate anyone. The public hospitals will have 1600 less doctors in January 2017, the economy will have to do with thousands of fewer engineers, accountants and other professionals. But even more concerning, if students do not graduate, then others who are completing school cannot come in.  This is the crisis we confront.

Of course we know how we got here. For 20 years we grew our system, but reduced the per capita subsidy. VCs addressed this underfunding with fee increases and essentially priced out higher duration from the hands of both the working and middle classes. This system was brought to an end with the student protests of 2015.

To address the demands of students last year, we did two things; a zero percent fee increase and the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training . But the delay in the establishment of the Commission put the issue of fees back on the agenda.

After long consultations, the Minister recommended an 8% fee increase and the payment of the fee increase for all those less than R600 000 family income. But despite all the consultations; it has not brought the consensus required. The delays at the Commission have aggravated matters and now we are confronting a new round of protests. These issues have to be squarely addressed if we going to get out of this challenge.

There is one further challenge on the state side. We have had close to a billion rand of infrastructure burnt, and yet not a single person has been arrested and convicted. How many countries in the world would allow such a situation to exist? We have to fix the crisis in policing and prosecutions.

But there are also some questions that must be asked about protestors. We have to ask hard questions about the propensity for violence. I have listened to some protestors who say that they want their Marikana moment. I was engaging a student yesterday who says people must die. We have to collectively stand up and don’t romanticize violence and death. My generation and previous generations lost to many people and we do not want it again. No one knows the pain in the hearts of Solomon Mahlangu’s family, and those of the many others. We do not want to have our people to go through such pain again.

But protestors have to also realise that we cannot achieve social transformation in a single moment, overnight. Free education for the poor and the missing middle is not going to happen overnight. It has to be part of a process and this is what we need to determine now. Moreover we do not have to sacrifice the 2016 academic year to advance the struggle for free education for the poor and missing middle. This is a message not only of VCs but also of students:

“I want to make clear that I am in full support of the free education movement but not at the expense of my qualification. I have been a NSFAS student for two years and that I am currently and have been funded by BankSETA for the past two years. I cannot afford to not write my exams this year.”

We need an urgent engagement to immediately resolve the fee increase impasse. We also cannot wait for the Commission to conclude its report in June. The preliminary report will be in November and must be the basis for an engagement. It should be the basis for a stakeholder engagement of all relevant players. This engagement must be part of creating a new educational pact and should be premised on a single principle: no student who has been accepted into university should be denied from continuing and completing their study because of a lack of finance. A diverse set of mechanisms must be put in place to address this, and students must be involved in fashioning these solutions.

We cannot have people say one thing and do another. We cannot have parties say one thing, and their members do another. Twenty three years ago we we’re on a precipice when a hero of this country was assassinated. It was bold leadership that averted a civil war and gave birth to democracy for all of its weaknesses. Today we need such bold leadership again, not only from our political leaders, but from all of us, the VCs, the students, the churches, mosques, synagogues, and from the parents. If we do not come together, we will not save the day.

So I ask all of you to pray to our gods, to draw on the spirit of our prophets, to draw on the spirit of our ancestors, to draw on the memory of Madiba, Tambo, Sisulu, Biko, Sobukwe, Alexandre, Ruth First and Joe Slovo, Yusuf Dadoo, Fanon, Cabral, Nyerere and many others, so that we can have the political courage and wisdom to come together to build a new educational pact.