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Time to Honor Promises

By Faith Kiarie

South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress, made ambitious promises to the masses back in 1955, as outlined in the Freedom Charter, and again in 1994, when it came to power as the country’s first democratically elected government. To the youth, the party promised “free, compulsory, universal and equal [education] for all children,” and declared that tertiary education should be accessible to all “by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit.” It also claimed that “there shall be work and security.” However, statistics show that the promises made to South Africa’s young people—more so than any other sector of its population—have not been granted, and given the intensity of recent protests, it’s clear that the youth won’t accept this without a struggle.

Since 1994, the number of students enrolled in universities has been growing steadily. Sadly, only about 35 percent of them graduate in the required time. And of those who drop out, most do so in their first year—too early to have gained meaningful intellectual development. Of course, education is not a guarantee for a better life; there are plenty of examples where people have done well for themselves without it. Nevertheless, all can agree that with higher education the chances of improving one’s social and economic situation are significantly higher than without it. It’s tremendously disheartening that so many of our youth are forced to walk away from their studies for financial, academic, and logistical reasons.

The powerful #FeesMustFall campaign of late 2015 was born as a consequence of built-up frustration, forcing President Jacob Zuma to announce a freezing of the annual university fee increment for the year 2016. In a matter of weeks, student activists had brought almost every university to a standstill over the cost of education, which, for the year ending March 2015, had risen by 9.3 percent. This is 5.3 percent higher than the headline consumer price index. Beyond that, there are still textbook, accommodation, food, and transport costs to be covered. This is proving to be too expensive for many, mostly black, families. This is against the backdrop of a 650 million Rand ($42.2 million) underutilization of funds by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), a body tasked with the responsibility to provide loans to academically able but financially challenged students. The youth asked: Are these policies not the opposite of making tertiary education accessible to all?

Academically, many eager students at tertiary institutions find themselves poorly equipped to cope with the demands of this level of study. This comes as no surprise, as the country’s basic education system is essentially split into two. Regrettably, only 25 percent of schools are considered to be “functional,” meaning that the quality of education offered to pupils in such schools is comparable to that found in developed countries. These schools outperform the other 75 percent of schools by huge margins year after year. Children from low income families are prevented from receiving a good education simply due to geographic location and economic status. How can the state claim to offer “equal” opportunity for education when some children do not develop sufficient foundations in mathematics and literacy?

In terms of employment, it is the youth that again bear the brunt of the problem. Up to three-quarters of the unemployed are youth. In a middle-income country in which the average woman has 2.3 children, one can reasonably assume that the breadwinner’s paycheck can’t be stretched very far beyond the absolute necessities. One can also conclude that the idleness and frustration of such a vigorous age group is bound to manifest itself in some form of social ill. Indeed, the 2009-2014 STATSSA report confirms that both perpetrators and victims of crime are mostly youth. Surely we can do more to ensure that the youth have “work and security,” too.

These historically-rooted problems have been intensified by global conditions, but they are still largely domestic. South Africa’s basic education system seems to be increasing rather than reducing inequality, despite education expenditure accounting for a sizeable chunk of government spending. It’s unacceptable that National Student Financial Aid Scheme is riddled with corruption and mismanagement when it has been trusted with such a significant duty. It’s mindboggling that labor laws have been left as they are when the business community has been lamenting for years that they’re hindering employment.

The government has had ample time—22 years, to be exact—to do right by the country’s young people through rapid economic and social transformation. The wave of protests and the shift in political power that we see today make it clear that South Africa’s youth refuse to inherit a country that’s class-based and whose systems of economic power are by and large those of apartheid.

These problems are intricate and tackling them requires renewed commitment from all members of society. For instance, the appointment of Sizwe Nxasana, outgoing chief executive officer of First Rand, as the new chairman of NSFAS is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. Nxasana has an impressive professional background and has expressed a passion for education. He's expected to work toward improving the efficiency of the NSFAS. South Africa can’t afford to have universities that only work well for some, nor can it have a labor market that’s closed to so many. These young activists aren’t rebels without a cause, as some would have us believe. They’re merely saying that now is the time to honor promises made to them. 

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Faith Kiarie recently completed an honours degree in finance at the University of the Western Cape. She is interested in economic development in Africa, especially that of women.

[Photo courtesy of Ian Barbour]

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