Free Education — Not an Irrational Call

By the time I was 18years old, I already had a debt of about R30 000 owing to NSFAS. At that point in time, I wasn’t even fully aware of the implications or seriousness of that. Now, many may say I should be grateful that I had my first year at UOVS paid for and I didn’t have to worry about funding, because the government had my back. I would, and still will readily agree with them. However, I also believe that NSFAS loans are not the solution if we want address the issue of access to education and simultaneously address the historical inequality that this country still grapples with even to this day.

It makes no sense to say to a person who cannot afford education from the onset, “I’m gonna give you a loan for you to pay for your fees and you can pay me later” and then claim you want to eradicate poverty and empower black people. It truly makes no sense at all. The capitalist system that is in place, which by its very nature; appeals to, and maintains whiteness and white monopoly, makes it impossible for the ordinary black child to aspire to, and attain education. The commodification of education ensures that, not only is it difficult for everyone to have a fair shot at getting an education, but even those that do end up in university by some sort of miracle, end up with a cloud of NSFAS debt hanging over their heads. This, coupled with the fact that every graduate that gets spewed out by the higher education system has to contend with the fact that they might someday find themselves plastered all over Facebook, holding out a cardboard that reads: “B.Com (Accounting) looking for a job, contact me 072…..”. When they do get to find employment, because some kind stranger saw their post on Facebook being shared by countless strangers, they now have to deal with the fact that, in addition to uplifting their family from the depths of poverty, debt and sometimes disease, they have to now worry about repaying the loan that paid for their education.

This person is also expected to save up and ensure that their siblings go to school, while simultaneously trying to feed themselves. A friend of mine recently told me that she is helping her parents to pay for two of her siblings, one of them being at UCT. The issue of access to education is almost always tied to race, therefore we cannot discuss such issues without taking into account the fact that, the people who always get the short end of the stick are always black people. As much as we can claim to be a rainbow nation and claim that the playing field has been leveled, the reality of the matter is that equality has not always translated into equity. This means that, even though we are equal on paper, because our constitution says so, it doesn’t mean we are equal economically, educationally and otherwise. There is a host of things that need to be addressed and redressed as a country that we neglected to do post-1994, and now they are coming back to haunt us.

The call for free education therefore, is not an irrational and improbable ideal. It has been on the table for years now. Proposals have been tabled before the Minister of Higher Education countless times. Besides the 2013 proposal that he ignored and the various proposals presented to him by student leaders, his own party, the ANC has used the rhetoric of free education countless times in their campaigns and it is enshrined as well in the freedom charter. I can go on, but you get the picture. The issue here is not whether we can afford free education or not, the issue is what do we value more? Is it empowering and improving the lives of every citizen in this country? Particularly those who were previously disadvantaged, or do we value property and university mementos more… The recent call by a particular member of parliament for the president to deploy the army to universities to protect property clearly shows who is valued and who isn’t. Clearly the resounding sentiment within the corridors of power is that property is more valuable than human life. Are we surprised then when police manhandle students and shoot at will, when confronting unarmed students?

This is a direct result of course, of an evil, capitalist system that equates your humanity to the number of zeros behind your name. The more money you have, the more “human” you are. Therefore, the poor are automatically assigned the status of lesser humanity, or no humanity at all. This then gives those with the means to determine your existence the power to decide what is due to you and what isn’t. It is a violent system that plays itself out implicitly for the most, and explicitly in some cases (like police brutality towards only black students, refusal of access to lectures of black students by private security, etc). I will not go too much into detail with this analysis, but I hope you get the gist of it.

In light of all this, may God help this country get to where it needs to get. I am strongly persuaded that a society where blacks and whites can live together in harmony is possible, however if we keep sweeping injustices of the past under the carpet, we keep pushing that day further and further away. The violence we see on our campuses nationwide, is nothing compared to the systemic and structural violence experienced daily those of us who cannot afford the expensive gift/curse that is education in South Africa. Lastly, before you make a judgement about whether students are hooligans who want nothing but to disrupt classes and render the country ungovernable, try to put yourself in their shoes first and then make a judgement. If you cannot make that effort, then consider yourself disqualified from expressing your half-cooked opinion that is influenced by sensationalist journalism and university management propaganda that is perpetuated in mainstream media.

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