The management of Wits University and especially the ANC government must work out an urgent solution to what is a gathering storm, which can potentially disrupt the entire academic year, even before it has really begun. Picture: Bhekikhaya Mabaso/African News Agency (ANA)
Right now, the economic and social crisis we suffer is worse than it has ever been since the 1994 democratic elections. Times when even the rising black middle class is itself reeling from the devastating impact of a growing economic crisis over the past decade.

Try therefore to imagine if that is the current situation, how much more students from the poorer black working class will be affected by this crisis, in order to appreciate the demands the Students Representative Council (SRC) presented to management at the University of the Witwatersrand late last week, amidst the graphic violence in which it was once again gripped.

I am reminded of the pitched battles fought between students and the police and private security in 2015 and 2016. At that time, while I completely supported the demands of the students, I chastised the violent destruction of vitally important educational infrastructure by them.

That was my big difference with the students: the unbridled violence. But upon reflection I think I underestimated the depth of the anger among students affected by tuition fees, accommodation costs and its availability and a whole range of cost-of-living expenses they were subjected to, especially students from the black working class.

The management of Wits University and especially the ANC government must work out an urgent solution to what is a gathering storm, which can potentially disrupt the entire academic year, even before it has really begun.

This purported government of “the people”, who cherished the ideas of the Freedom Charter, including that the “Doors of learning and culture shall be opened to all”, need to urgently start practically fulfilling and giving real meaning and life to that noble aim.

My target in this criticism is not so much the Wits management but the government. There are many studies that point to the inadequate funding for tertiary education to meet rapidly expanding needs after 1994. How can the government encourage students to study but fail to provide the universities with the requisite funding to admit them and enable them to study?

This is the real nub of the problem Wits and other universities are faced with. What would I do if I was President Cyril Ramaphosa in such a situation, especially given the fact that he was once the most progressive black trade unionist in this country, leading the struggles for the liberation of the black working class in particular?

He must bear in mind, too, in this regard that the majority of these students are the children of that same class. I would urgently call a meeting with the Minister of Finance and senior officials in Treasury to find a way to help needy students, especially since their demands are valid and basic to their ability to study.

How can students even begin to study when basic requirements, such as fees, books, stationery, accommodation, meals and transport costs are not adequately met?

While a response by the university to the demands presented by the SRC last week clearly shows they are trying their best to assist needy students, there is a very troubling aspect in their response, which unless addressed urgently, will saddle many students and probably those from poorer backgrounds most. This is the “roll-over debt” the university provides for.

This is going to prove not a concession, but in the longer run an albatross of crushing debt students will have to pay upon completion of their studies.

This debt issue is going to become one of the biggest problems facing Wits and other universities. But how does Ramaphosa reconcile his support for “radical economic transformation” and these basic and burning financial issues facing these students?He and the ANC must bear in mind that we are close to election time. I strongly suspect the huge black student section of the electorate will seek to punish them by either staying away from the polls or voting for other parties.

Besides, what a shocking indictment of this government it is that in the richest and most powerful city in Africa many black students struggle to fulfil the most basic requirements in order to study. If a democratically elected government cannot adequately satisfy those basic needs of students they do not deserve to be in office.

* Ebrahim Harvey is a political writer and commentator.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.