Forced indebtedness of students keeps them in chains, writes Phakamile Hlubi.
Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande has doomed the African youth to modern-day slavery through indebtedness.
The Department of Higher Education's response to the fees crisis by increasing access to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) has proven not to be the lifeline it was touted to be earlier this year. In fact, Blade Nzimande, also the SACP general secretary, has doomed an entire generation of African youth to modern-day slavery through forced indebtedness.
The university crisis is a direct response to the post-1994 racist and colonial socio-economic structure of South Africa. The majority of the students on campuses come from African working-class families already overburdened financially. Of those who work, a staggering 60% earn below R4100 a month.
It is time for the ANC and its alliance partners got serious about removing all vestiges of structural apartheid. Free, quality, decolonised education is a starting point. Despite the rhetoric, this government has shown itself to have completely abandoned the Freedom Charter and all pretensions for socialist ideals. Nzimande and his ilk are nothing more than cheerleaders for neo-colonialism, which facilitate the oppression and exploitation of the African working class.
Increasing the level of debt of the working class is the cornerstone of the neo-liberal economy that the ANC government supports. It is no surprise therefore that the man tasked with growing the NSFAS debt book is none other than banker Sizwe Nxasana, formerly of FirstRand Bank.
Jeremy Brunger, a social economist, has been sharply critical of debt loans as the solution to accessing higher education. In his article, The Poverty Machine: Student Debt, Class Society and Securing Bonded Labour, he writes:
“The most worrying facet of this indebting process is the public insistence that students from low-income families attend university on credit. Born into poverty, they can expect to continue enduring it even upon graduation, even if they amass the scholarships and grants that are geared to supporting them."
Once they graduate, Brunger goes on to say: “The saturated labour market will force many desperate young people into accepting any kind of employment because of the debt burden.”
Therefore, this forced indebtedness of working-class students before they have even had the chance to earn a single pay cheque does not end the cycle of poverty.
NSFAS is an inadequate solution to a complex problem. It doesn't guarantee money for books, accommodation or even food. Despite loans and bursaries, thousands of students suffer the daily indignity of squatting and sleeping in dodgy and dangerous places. They are often forced to attend classes on empty stomachs and even if they survive this, they have to fight academic or financial exclusion from the institutions annually.
African and black students from poor and working-class families are enraged at the extent of their suffering, and who can blame them? The post-1994 political deal has failed them.
For the last 23 years the ANC government has implemented Gear, the national development plan (NDP) and all kinds of neo-liberal economic policies with built-in mechanisms to limit social spending. The policies have deepened the economic divide - the rich are even richer and the poor are worse off.
Apartheid deliberately used access to education as a weapon against the African majority. As minister of education in PW Botha’s cabinet, the last apartheid president FW De Klerk ensured that Africans were subjected to an inferior education system to cement their status as cheap labour. After 1994, the high cost of education at the nation’s public institutions was used to exclude the African majority.
The ANC has responded to the crisis just like the apartheid government would have. It has encouraged increased securitisation at the institutions, heightening the possibility of a violent confrontation between students and the state and private armed security apparatus. Students have been assaulted and jailed for long periods, and at least one person has been killed.
#FeesMustFall activist Bonginkosi Khanyile languished in jail for six months and was denied bail for his role in the protests. The state viewed his actions of throwing rocks at police to be of a far greater threat than the actions of some rapists and murderers.
The #FeesMustFall movement is an example of the social unrest that we will continue to see as long as the ANC government carries on the self-destructive neo-liberal path it has chosen. The ring of fire of discontent, which Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of Saftu, warned about in 2010 is tightening. This should not surprise us because the daily brutality of the capitalist economic system fuels the rage, which in turn causes the violence.
Numsa recognises that universal access to a decolonised, quality education for the African majority is the cornerstone towards achieving social justice and equality in any society. This can only be achieved through the total overthrow of capitalism. As socialists we are determined to show South Africans that we can offer more than scientific and accurate analysis of our problems.
We boldly propose solutions, and free, quality and decolonised education is one of our basic pillars. We must learn from the Cubans who demonstrated this in practice. They created one of the world’s best education systems in spite of a long and difficult economic embargo imposed by their imperialist neighbour, the US.
The students’ struggle is just, and their cause is noble. The #FeesMustFall movement is like the generation of 1976 who were willing to stare down the barrel of a gun in order to achieve the goal of quality education. As the working class we stand in solidarity with them.
* Hlubi is acting national spokesperson of Numsa.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.