When the Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, called a press conference this week to announce his ‘decision’ on fee increases for the year, there was a clear and devious strategy at play: to do everything possible to distance himself, the Treasury, President Jacob Zuma, and the ANC, from the mess which they themselves have created.
The ANC strategy has been, from the very beginning, to make the Universities the enemy of the students, so that the collective anger can be wielded not against those who make the decisions about funding, but against the very institutions which have been calling for more funding for more than a decade. It is a desperate act of self-preservation which once again puts the ANC first and the people last.
In a time of crisis, one expects strong leadership and foresight. But what South Africa is witnessing this week is more cowardice and disdain by an ANC government that has abandoned the future of South Africa. They well know that even if Universities are able to implement an 8% fee increase, this will render them unsustainable as institutions.
At the heart of the frustration that young South Africans are feeling today is the lack of opportunities in the country economy. With 8.9 million people unemployed, and a government which doesn’t take higher education and skills development seriously, hopes for a better life are being maliciously dashed. The ANC's attempt to pit students against universities and get off scot-free will only prolong the crisis, and assist in the collapse of precious institutions that exist to serve South Africa, and provide the skills young South Africans need to pursue their dreams.
Furthermore, dissatisfaction with the government has been growing over high levels of unemployment, a lack of basic services and allegations of widespread corruption. the ANC is likely to use its impressive mandate to try to drive through its National Development Plan - rejecting nationalisation, and emphasising investment and infrastructure. The business-friendly plan has alarmed South Africa's powerful unions - some of which may soon break away to form their own party.
It might be tempting to conclude that in South Africa the more things change, the more they stay the same. But the national polls, and electoral outcomes in South Africa’s nine provinces, reveal subtler shifts and trends that cast the election in a rather different light and raise important questions about the ANC’s future as a dominant party. Would the ANC be able to deliver its promises and maintain its legitimacy? Would President Zuma and the ANC leadership be able to address the big issues that sickening South Africa today?
The ANC wasn’t just elected into government in 1994. It reclaimed the freedom and self-determination of all people by means of a struggle that was long, bloody, dehumanizing, humiliating and towards the ends, fairly clever. On a continent where democracy is largely just another corrupt form of failed governance, the ANC is the party that won the struggle, thereby becoming the natural leader of the nation.
But the power the ANC holds in its current form is neither saturated nor guaranteed. Its leadership is not carved in stone. The massive power struggles within the party are the truest form of political rivalry and need to be given more attention. The prevalent whining about the definition of a “true democracy“ and the size and relevance of the opposition also misses the point. The government is not accountable to its opposition. It is accountable to its people.
Many things have improved in South Africa since 1994, to be sure. State racism has ended, and the country now boasts what many describe as the most progressive constitution in the world. People have rights, and there are institutions designed to protect and uphold those rights. Still, the dream of higher education, as a gateway from poverty for young South Africans remains a struggle – a struggle that is infinitely compounded by the sense of disappointment that accompanies it, given the gap between the expectations of liberation and the state of abjection that the majority continues to inhabit.
South Africa’s unemployment rate in 1994 was 13 percent – so bad that most were convinced it could not get worse. Yet today it is double that, at more than 25 percent. Add all the people who have given up searching for work, and the figure is closer to 37 percent. The situation is particularly bad for young people. The Economist recently reported that “half of South Africans under 24 looking for work have none. Of those who have jobs, a third earn less than $2 a day.”
Besides its dismal record on employment, South Africa also boasts a reputation for being one of the most unequal countries in the world. Not only has aggregate income inequality worsened since the end of apartheid, income inequality between racial groups has worsened as well.
According to the 2011 census, black households earn only 16 percent of that which white households earn, partly because young black South Africans, who can not afford to achieve their dreams through higher education skills end up doing menial jobs, which limits the scope of jobs opportunities. About 62 percent of all black people live below the poverty line, while in the rural areas of the former homelands this figure rises to a shocking 79 percent.
In 2006, 70 percent of South Africa’s land was still under the control of whites, who constitute a mere 10 percent of the population. The ANC’s Black Economic Empowerment programme has succeeded in minting new black millionaires (South Africa has 7,800 of them now), but cannot seem to manage the much more basic goal of eliminating poverty, by making Universities affordable for the young South Africans.
When the ANC assumed power in 1994 it implemented a progressive policy initiative known as the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). The RDP was designed to promote equitable development and poverty reduction, mostly through education investment and the mass rollout of social services to connect millions of people to housing, electricity, water, and clinics. Despite its successes, this policy framework was abandoned a mere two years later.
Also when the ANC came to power with a landslide vote in 1994, they did so on the promises of the Freedom Charter. Penned in 1955, the Freedom Charter expressed South Africans’ demands for the right to work, housing, freedom of movement, education – most radically – economic justice. Most South Africans agree that these promises have been horribly betrayed. South Africa’s education system remains a privilege for few.
Given these contradictions, it is no wonder that South Africa is ablaze with discontent, earning the title of “protest capital of the world”. It seems that every year authorities report that the number of protests has reached the highest levels since the end of apartheid. And, indeed, the figures are staggering: early this year some 3,000 protests occurred over a 90 day period, involving more than a million people. South Africans are taking to the streets as they give up on electoral politics. This is particularly true for the young:
The government’s response has been a mix of police repression – including the recent students protest--and the continued rollout of welfare grants, which now reach more than 15 million people. The grants are a stop-gap solution to the failure of trickle-down economics, a way of papering over the contradictions of South African capitalism; everyone is aware that without them poverty and inequality would be so unbearable that the country’s already tenuous sense of social stability would come crashing to an end.
So far the protests have been focused on issues like lower universities fees, housing, water, electricity, and other basic services, but it won’t be long before they coalesce into something much more powerful, as they did during the last decade of apartheid. There are already signs that this is beginning to happen.
The Economic Freedom Fighters, recently founded by Julius Malema, the unsavoury former leader of the ANC Youth League, is successfully mobilising discontented youth and making a strong push to nationalise the mines, the banks and lower universities fees.
In short, the situation in South Africa over the past 20 years opens up interesting questions about the meaning of democracy. What is democracy if it doesn’t allow people to determine their own economic destiny or benefit from the vast wealth of the commons? What is freedom if it serves only the capital interests of the country’s elite? The revolution that brought the end of apartheid has accomplished a great deal, to be sure, but it has not yet reached its goal.
Prof Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/ Writer
African Affairs Expert
Photo-Credit: AFP-Photo of South Africans Students Protest