#FeesMustFall – Demanding an affordable Bill of Rights

South Africa’s political inheritance of freedom and equality came with the huge responsibility of educational, cultural and social integration within academic institutions. Democracy also came with inequality, as political freedom did not automatically deliver economic freedom. Equality is futile if it strategically prejudices the majority it is meant to serve.

Freedom has come with lack of funds for exorbitant university fees, under-resourced high schools in preparation for tertiary education and the struggle to adjust as generational firsts in the post-apartheid tertiary education system.

The inheritance of rights in a Constitution that honours equality, and entrenches the right to an education, means that there should not be space for the subjective inequality that the poor majority suffers under the disguise that we all, objectively, have access to education even if it is, in practice, unaffordable to the majority.

Rhodes Must Fall as the starting point

The struggle of the youth of post-apartheid segregation found a voice through the Rhodes Must Fall movement that started in early February this year.

Black students also shared their experiences of racial and cultural exclusion in universities and how the use of the Afrikaans language in some institutions was a mechanism to institutionalise racism.

The objective of the Rhodes Must Fall movement was to ‘decolonise education’ by way of transformation from a curriculum dominated by an Anglo-Saxon narrative, to one more inclusive of African and black academia.

This was in line with ensuring that the educational curriculum of institutions is more reflective of the society it educates. Perhaps when second-generation university students study the work of Dr Chinua Achebe and Professor Pumla Gqola alongside Charles Dickens, then we can truly say that racial integration exists in South African society.

Educational transformation also entrenches us as agents of change in current affairs.

It was from this movement highlighting a lack of racial integration that the ‘Born Free’ generation – young South Africans born after 1994, the year of the first democratic elections – who are associated with political apathy and entitlement, found unity in a common cause against the increase of tuition fees.

Fees Must Fall: Education is not a privilege

Education is not a privilege, it is a right that the previous generation fought and died for. It is one thing to have to live through the socio-economic and cultural legacies of apartheid, but it is another to make a basic right so closely linked to a chance at a better life, inaccessible.

Education was the same reason students gathered in their thousands in 1976 to protest against being taught in Afrikaans, because it would make education even more inaccessible to the black population who were already receiving a poor quality ‘Bantu education’.

The Fees Must Fall protest was not about picking at the scabs of our history, it was about carrying on the fight for progress to ensure that the wounds of the past truly heal to create a truly equal nation.

Taking a stand against exploitation

Taking a stand against financial exclusion means that we reject the notion that education should be reserved for the rich and privileged. We reject the notion that education should be elitist and inaccessible to the poor and the middle-class because they cannot afford it.

Education is a vital aspect of becoming economically valuable, and the inaccessibility of education leaves the political right inoperative if it cannot be enforced economically as well.

In order for the economic contribution of today’s youth to be valuable and a significant aspect of economic freedom to be attained, we need to have affordable education.

The demand is not for ‘free education’, as we understand that two decades of democracy may not possibly accommodate that yet.

But as we take a stand against financial exclusion and the exploitive increase of fees, it is also tacit defiance against other forms of financial exploitation by government.

It is important to stand up against what would significantly increase the gap between rich and poor, so as to cap the potential prejudice that transcends from institutional racism to institutionalised classism.

We also hope that our stand against financial exclusion in universities may make free education attainable for the next generation to carry the baton of progress.

In effect, standing up for our own education means that we have more to contribute to the country’s economy as an educated working class, and it is through our future economic value that the generation after us may have a free education and finally have the full benefit of the right to education that the previous generation secured for us.

The realities of financial exclusion

Many students are forced to drop out because of financial exclusion, and this takes away from our country’s future economic pool.

Many students have to juggle work and studies, not for extra pocket money, but out of necessity to supplement what their parents cannot afford or to survive the eight-month period waiting for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme to pay out.

We are studying because we want a place in the economy. We are aware that our taxes as future employees or entrepreneurs have the potential to contribute to free education for the next generation.

An essential aspect of participating in the protest was knowing that it was not about me as an individual, and that was the powerful driving force behind my participation and our solidarity.

Some students, although in the forefront of the movement, were not from the disadvantaged group that would suffer prejudice from fee increases. Even students who were from a middle-class that could afford the fee increase or were on bursaries that would pay out regardless of the fee increase, did not take their privilege as grounds for apathy.

Having watched friends drop out due to financial exclusion as the fees stood, we could not sit content in the security of our degrees while losing essential elements of our future economy.

The above, coupled with the realisation that the security of having a bursary still had dire implications for future awardees of these bursaries, made protesting a universal obligation.

Also, an increase in fees means that higher financial support is awarded to pay one student, while lower fees could allow more students to be selected.

The cause for the movement was far beyond just our own education because we realise the ripple effect that (strategically) being denied a place in education has on being denied participation in the economy and how that in no way leads to a better South Africa.

Fees have fallen – a zero percent increase

Although our main objective for the 0% increase in tuition fees for 2016 was met, it is a small victory as discussions did not go further than that. We were never given a justification for the large increase in the first place.

Some institutions, like the University of Pretoria, initially proposed a 100% increase in registration fees, from R5,000 to R10,000 (US$362 to US$723) for South African students. The registration for international students had been increased by 300%, taking it to R40,000 just for registration.

When these announcements were met with protest, some universities negotiated the amounts down without any justification for the initial extremely high increases.

Throughout the protests, government has not been willing to address students, and it is unfortunate that protests had to escalate to the extent of protesting at parliament, and catching international attention, in order for the issue to finally be acknowledged as a national crisis.

Even as we go home with the victory of a 0% increase, we have unresolved questions over why the increase was mandatory and so vast. We have unresolved questions about whether the price will increase in 2017, and the long-term solutions for the high costs of tertiary education.

The announcement of 0% comes almost as a pacifier, with no solid implications of the future.

But we are grateful that our solidarity was able to at least secure our present. And we know that, if need be, we can be a true ‘rainbow nation’ whose colours don’t only run parallel, but intersect to create a better country.