OPINION | Education’s in crisis from Wits to Driehoek, but Sona will ignore it
Six black pupils slowly approached a memorial of flowers set down against the fence of Die Hoërskool Driehoek in Vanderbijlpark, an industrial city about 60km south of Johannesburg. Four white pupils had been crushed to death by a collapsed walkway shortly after the school assembly; many more were recovering from injury in nearby hospitals.
Once again a terrible human tragedy brought out the worst and the best in us.
A spokesperson for a violent and racist political fringe group made headlines saying he would celebrate the deaths of these white children. God and the ancestors were sending a message to whites and these offspring of “land thieves” which prompted a social media response: “Who was God punishing when black people died in shack fires?”
Then this group of black pupils in immaculate school dress show up at the school with flowers. One of the two girls in the group lowers herself to place the flowers and then closes her face with both hands, overcome with grief. A white teacher alongside the group wipes tears from her eyes.
This must have been one of the most deadly starts to the academic year in SA. At a Durban university a student was shot and killed during protests and confrontations with security guards. This tragedy comes in the wake of another student death in 2018 at a Pretoria university under similar circumstances – students and security staff in a deadly standoff. Once again, across the country, our university campuses are in turmoil.
Imagine you were a first-year university student. For years you have looked forward to this moment, to study for a degree with the freedom that releases you from all the restrictions of school, from wearing blazers to being locked inside the school gates. The orientation was a little intimidating but also exciting as you were told by the university leaders to study hard, live your dreams and have some fun along the way. Then, everything is shattered before your eyes.
A group of angry students disrupts your very first classes. Another group bursts into your residence, insisting you join the campus strike. In the line to pay your registration fees at a private college in Durban, your group is also threatened by students demanding a province-wide shutdown of campuses. As you walk to classes you notice an overturned car burning on the grounds of your university and you begin to wonder whether this is your lot for the next three or more years of your degree studies.
Your parents thought that the violent upheavals of the 2015-16 campus protests were over, except, it seems, they never went away.
This is precisely what I meant in the subtitle of my book, The end of the South African university. It does not mean that the rituals of registration, instruction and graduation would not continue but that these core university functions will continue to be hobbled and the quality of a university degree gradually undermined.
Our universities now find themselves in a state of perpetual crisis that no longer affects only the old universities of technology or the historically black institutions – as was the case for decades – but also the elite universities such as Wits where students have started a hunger strike after violent clashes with campus security.
It really does not matter what the issues are – in effect, protesters want immediate accommodation for every student, no restrictions on registration and free higher education across the board. University managers respond by straining their limited resources (Wits had to find another R12m to assist struggling students despite an already generous regime of financial support as well as on-campus feeding programmes).
Students want historical debt wiped out, which would collapse the finances of any SA university; it is as simple as that. And the government has already sold off the family jewels when then president Jacob Zuma made the reckless and ultimately unsustainable decision of offering free education to incoming students in an economy that was not growing.
Will these critical concerns about the future of school and university education even feature in this week’s State of the Nation address? Will the president be able to calm the waters of higher education by ensuring adequate support for all poor students while at the same time intervening to end the slide of our prized institutions of higher learning into academic oblivion?
I doubt it.
The president will probably boast about the matric results (where half the pupils did not make it to Grade 12) and proclaim the coming fourth industrial revolution over the heads of those in crumbling school infrastructures in rural and township schools. He will, in all likelihood, be tone deaf to what is going on at Wits in Johannesburg and all the universities in Durban.
In the end, the reconstruction of education and the restoration of our dignity lies in our hands as ordinary citizens. In one powerful gesture, the students laying down flowers at the Driehoek school offer a starting point for solidarity and for change...