Dear reader, this text is published in the spirit of open-access as part of our new project entitled The Funambulist Correspondents. Every week for a bit over a year, we will publish a text written by one of our 28 commissioned correspondents in as many places of the world. The project is made possible through generous support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.
It is exactly six years ago since the first wave of #FeesMustFall, a student-led movement against commodified and commercialized tertiary education in South Africa. Since then, almost every beginning of the academic year in February starts with students protesting against exorbitant university fees or exclusion and agitating for decolonized education. They reignite the conversation and the movement about their democratic constitutional right to free and inclusive higher education, as national budgets are constrained, worsened by the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In March 2021, a generation of new students took to the streets of Johannesburg at Wits University, this time under a campaign “Asinamali”, (a Zulu word which literally translates into “We do not have money”). This time, the students were in a quest for universities to allow qualifying students to register despite their historical debts. Similar to the past series of Fees Must Fall protests, they demonstrated against lack of access to and financial exclusion from higher education. Because a majority of returning students tend to have unpaid fees from their previous academic years and are not allowed to register (a process of module/ subject selection once accepted into a course) for the new academic year before these debts are paid, they demanded access despite their financial inability to pay. Some of their other demands included immediate provision of post-graduate funding and that all first-time university students be allowed to register while the government seeks a solution to funding.
A series of these student movements broadly highlight a failure of decolonization and democratization in now almost 30 years since the end of apartheid. Yet, narratives re-surfacing due to student protests between South Africans from different backgrounds and racial groups undermine existing financial disparities and socio-economic realities between Black and white households.
In 2016, during the launch of the book “Fees Must Fall,” edited by Susan Booysen, Dr Refiloe Lepere, a theatre director and writer, stressed on the fact that these student movements were [and still are] a catalyst for the greater discourse of the struggles that face the majority of South Africans and that this fight has not been merely about fees.
In other words, fees-related uprisings are not just about students, they uncover larger societal problems concerning majority Black South Africans. Societal problems that are affecting not only these students, but also their immediate families and communities they come from. So, these protests can be seen as illustrating “how dignity and Black life remain terrible” years after democracy.
A June 2021 research about wealth inequality in South Africa between 1993 and 2017 by the World Inequality Lab shows unmatched levels of wealth concentration. It finds that the top 10% of South African wealth holders own more than 85% of household wealth, while the top 1% wealth share reaches 55%. The top 0.1%, which makes about 3,500 adults, own a higher share of wealth than the bottom 90% as a whole (about 32 million individuals). Such levels of inequality can be accounted for in all forms of assets at the top end, including housing, pension funds, and financial assets. The average wealth of the bottom 50% is negative: the market value of their assets is lower than their liabilities. In other words, the bottom 50% has more debts than they have assets. This research finds that “there is no sign of decreasing inequality since the end of apartheid”. If anything, the available evidence suggests that the share of wealth captured by the top 1% and the top 0.01% may even have increased.
Juxtaposed against these differences, unemployment figures are skyrocketing. The country stands at a record of 34.4% of unemployment. This makes about 7.8 million unemployed people, including and affecting youth – the highest since the Quarterly Labour Force Survey started in 2008.
The ongoing call for free and inclusive education should be read as a broad matter of economic exclusion and inequality as well as a struggle for accumulating wealth among the majority of South Africans.
But inequality, I underline, should not only be understood in narrow economic terms because South Africans presently suffer deeper inequalities than just “one inequality”, deeper than those of income and wealth. In his latest book, “The New Apartheid: Apartheid Did Not Die, It Was Privatised,” Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh notes that South Africa “suffers from inequalities of power, inequalities of racial justice, inequalities of gender justice, inequalities of land, inequalities of property, inequalities of force, inequalities of speech, and inequalities of care”.
Mpofu-Walsh also points to the importance of using the term “injustice” in the context of South Africa, and not just inequality. “Injustice” is crucial because it acknowledges and looks at the history as it is still affecting the present. It is crucial to understand where South Africans come from, how we came to arrive where we are in the present, in a moment in which we witness the manifestation of inequalities.
Logically, someone would think that one way to move away from economic exclusion or to be able to accumulate wealth (both on a short- and long-term basis for oneself and future generations) would be education. This is because the better we are educated, the better job prospects we have and the better we can be paid, as part of self-sustenance. This is the general understanding and this is why a lot of students aim to go to university. However, they run into the following problems:
A new generation of students is likely to rely on working relatives to help give them a kick-start to their education. But the fact that some of one’s Black family members work does not automatically mean that they can afford to pay the fees or that they can provide for the next generations. This is because working family members may have day-to-day responsibilities to ensure survival, often in intergenerational households.
So typically, a Black student is more likely to rely on financial support through scholarships or the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) bursaries in order to proceed with their studies. These scholarships then play a role that parents cannot — for example, catering to monthly cash and food allowances, expensive stationary, and university housing. But because most households live on a hand-to-mouth basis (on payments that can sustain barely a few days, or weeks until the next salary), they would rely on the perks their children with scholarships are receiving to also get by with the next coming weeks or month.
Without any financial head start, these students have to immediately get a job after 12th grade or after graduating at university in order to help their families or relatives who are often destitute without such help. Some people call this Black tax. Because Black households also have more liabilities than assets, getting a job as a young person means helping to cover debts, slowing down avenues or chances for prioritizing or even affording to create investments (that can be beneficial on a long-term basis).
Of course, a long-term vision or utopia — which would be ideal to be achieved at some point — is composed of all people being equal and there even being reparations paid to Black South Africans through, for instance, the redistribution of land. Of course, it would be best to overcome capitalism and to dismantle it. However, now, in this very moment, people have to survive today, tomorrow, or the next coming week or month. And even if we manage to survive this, we want our children to have a better life. In order to achieve this, we have to participate in the structure we know as capitalism. And one way to use it optimally is through education and this is why listening to those students is important. This is why university student movements still matter in South Africa. Education should not be commodified, as is the case currently. We need education so that there is some semblance of support when facing the reality of the existing capitalist system. We need education so that we can be more hopeful that, at some not-too-distant point, we will be able to live a better life.