Nelson Mandela reads through a celebratory supplement with delighted Jeppe Preparatory School, Joburg, pupils after hearing them sing Happy Birthday for him. File photo
Nelson Mandela reads through a celebratory supplement with delighted Jeppe Preparatory School, Joburg, pupils after hearing them sing Happy Birthday for him. File photo

Time to demand access to education

By Lesiba Seshoka Time of article published Nov 9, 2014

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The African child should rise up – 1976-style – to fight for their right to education and the ticket to liberation, writes Lesiba Seshoka.

Highlighting the importance of education, Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farmworkers can become the president of a great nation.”

It is this vision that was captured in 1997 by the Education White Paper 3, which read: “In South Africa today, the challenge is to redress past inequalities and to transform the higher education system to serve a new social order, to meet pressing needs, and to respond to new realities and opportunities.”

Twenty years down the line, the demographics of our universities remain skewed in favour of HF Verwoerd, DF Malan and JG Strijdom’s grandchildren.

Access is denied to the African child, who is told to compete with people who, on this racecourse, are yards ahead.

An African professor is hard to come by because of perceptions that he is of a lower standard and that there is no need to produce more of such people.

The curriculum that is taught remains entrenched in the ideology of separate development.

The furthest the child of many a poor mineworker can go is to become a servant.

Those at the helm of our universities refuse to allow the people of their institutions to speak to their main clients – the students – in their own language.

Mandela’s dream and the vision encapsulated in the White Paper are treated with contempt, in particular by the vice-chancellors of universities.

First, 20 years down the line, they have the audacity to report to their bosses, the taxpayers who pay their salaries, that transformation is impossible, that it is reverse discrimination, and that they will have a workshop on transformation this week!

In the corporate world, this is not the kind of mediocrity that is acceptable.

Your main shareholder gives you a mandate to go and execute – and you execute or you are out.

I am tempted to refer to this crew and their bureaucrats as charlatans for two reasons.

First, this is the crew who are supposed to possess the most intellectual capital in society, with the greatest problem-solving abilities. It is this crew who lead knowledge generation. It is this very crew who teach the rest that, in business, there is a balanced scorecard that needs to be attended to.

Among them are the most vociferous critiques and commentators on leadership, yet they are failing to lead us to a new world of a knowledge economy.

You, too, are critical of a person who leads close to 50 million people, but you fail to deliver transformation in your small fiefdom of a few thousand people.

Second, while pretending to have been at the forefront of fighting racism, they are the champions of racist exclusionary policies intended to leave Africans outside the knowledge economy, in the same manner as they were in the industrial economy.

These are the people who pretend to have the knowledge and skill to lead, who pretend to hold the copyright to knowledge – yet they can’t demonstrate these in practice. That is a charlatan for me.

In law, there is what is termed the “reasonable man on the street” test – and their argument cannot stand this test.

No reasonable man on the street would understand that, 20 years into democracy, you have only a single African professor at your institution because almost all such people have been nabbed by the private sector.

No reasonable man would understand the rationale of teaching an African language in English when Spanish or French is not taught in Portuguese.

If it were possible to take these arguments into a laboratory, they would fail there, too. They would even fail the litmus test.

Labour lawyers will tell you that refusing a lawful instruction from your employer is tantamount to insubordination.

Yet the bureaucrats leading our institutions of higher learning are able to reject transformation and implement racism – with no consequences.

All this racism is funded with taxpayers’ money.

This is the money deducted from the wages earned through blood and sweat by a poor mineworker whose child is denied access to higher education.

This is the very child Mandela dreamed about – that he would one day be the head of a mine.

Here is the solution: the daughter of a peasant, the son of a mineworker and the children of farmworkers must rise again – but not to burn a library in pursuing a demand for a road.

They have to rise up 1976-style, confront the charlatans at the helm of their university who argue that they are no longer disadvantaged, and demand access, equity and to be spoken to in a language they understand.

This has to be led by the communities from which these students come.

Obviously, a few black academics might want to join the chorus, but there will be few, very few, of them.

As ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe once put it: “South Africa is an Irish coffee society – black at the bottom and white on top, with a sprinkling of chocolate.”'

Those of a darker hue who have made it are largely indifferent and there are, of course, reasons for this.

Some are simply too excited about their new-found status and have become docile puppets reluctant to pursue change as they perceive this to be too career-limiting.

Others hid under tables in the heyday of student activism and are just too happy to be slaves, continually and unashamedly quoting knowledge generated by others.

Of course, still others sat comfortably in class overseas, studying, while their parents fought in the Struggle.

No wonder that some of the universities, such as the University of Cape Town, have had two successive black vice-chancellors, but remain untransformed.

But the greatest challenge for the African student is that even student formations are fragmented along political and religious lines.

This is why the communities of Khayelitsha, uMlazi and Ramaphosaville should stop burning tyres on their roads, demanding handouts, and should boldly march to the nearest university to demand access for their children.

They must do so to demand equity in knowledge production and demographics and an overhaul of the curriculum.

The few products of these universities are foreign to the societies they come from due to the poisonous nature of what they have been fed.

It is said that if one gives a man a fish, one feeds him for a day, but if one teaches him how to fish, one feeds him for a lifetime.

Don’t march for handouts, march for something bigger.

* Seshoka is executive director of corporate relations at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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

Sunday Independent

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