Transforming university and society: contemporary challenges for South African students Dr B.E. Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and Training
1 Oct 2012I would like to focus my talk on the challenges facing students today, including those faced by student leaders. However, our challenges exist in and are shaped by a broader historical, social and political context. So I am sure that you will excuse me if I spend a few minutes reflecting on this context which will help us to better understand our contemporary challenges and deepen our perspective on the issues that face us.
The student movement in South Africa was born and grew strong during the times of colonialism and apartheid. Students organised to improve their lives as students. Most of the student movements, especially those of black students, also fought as oppressed people who lacked rights of free citizens and were subjugated and exploited in many ways. Student protests were organised around many specific grievances:the quality of the education received, the quality of the food in residences, issues around school and university governance; unequal educational funding for whites and blacks, etc.
The students, however, were also an integral part of the liberation movement and fought against racism and racial oppression in society in general. Progressive student organisations were part of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the ANC and SACP had underground structures involving students and academics on many university campuses.
In those days the key national goal, accepted by all the supporters, members and formations of the broad liberation movement, was clear: the overthrow of apartheid, the establishment of a democratic, non-racial, non-sexist society and the building of an equitable social order in which there were equal rights for all, where everyone could make a decent living, have access to educational opportunities, health care and housing. An overarching vision was for the creation of a single South African nation in reality as well as in law, a nation where national culture was free to develop to its limits.
So, in summary, the progressive student movement always saw itself as an integral part of the national liberation movement. Although students had their own specific demands and struggles, they understood their overarching goals to be one and the same as the goals of the nation of which they were part.
The transition of 1994 was a monumental achievement: the establishment of institutions of democracy and the establishment of equality of all before the law. Parliament and was elected by the majority of the people and most of the major political demands of the liberation were met. We indeed made some compromises, but most people felt that this was worth it and an important beginning of a long journey towards the transformation of our society.
Our first democratically elected govt, led by President Nelson Mandela prioritised national reconciliation and the establishment of stability while putting into place laws which were aimed at creating a more democratic and equal society.
Despite the enormous gains we have made since 1994 we have not yet achieved our goals as a national liberation movement. But before I go on to talk about challenges that still face us, let me just mention some of the more concrete achievements with regard to improving people’s lives. A recent study by the fairly conservative Institute of Race Relations shows, for example, that progress has been considerable. Between 1996 and 2010, the number of households living in brick houses has increased by 89 % from 5.8 million to 11 million. In the same period, the number of houses with electricity increased by 127.9% from 5.2 million to 11.9 million.
The proportion of houses with electricity went up from 58% to 83%.The number of houses with access to water rose by almost 77% from 7.2 million to 12.7 million. Before 1994 only 3 million people received social grants and this has increased to 15 million today. The terrible blunders our movement made with regards to fighting HIV/AIDS have been acknowledged and since 2008, the pandemic has now being vigorously tackled so that millions of people’s lives are being extended. Of course to many of those who were privileged under apartheid these things they took for granted and therefore such monumental achievements are often dismissed as meaningless. Yet they represent huge improvements in the lives of ordinary workers and the poor, particularly black people of this country.
In the area of education we have also made important strides. We have achieved almost universal basic education. It may seem normal now that virtually all children attend school but this was not always so – even a short while ago. Since 1994, our university enrolments have doubled and we have plans to expand them even further. From 2010 our Department has provided, through NSFAS, for all FET College students who come from poor background to be completely exempted from paying fees if they pursue trades or occupational programmes.
Final year NSFAS students now receive a loan equivalent to full cost of study, and if they pass this get converted to a full bursary. Research in universities is has expanded so that we are more research-productive than it has ever been, although we still not satisfied and need to improve further. To those who say education was better under apartheid we say they are simply dishonest in the extreme, if not outright liars who think they can fool our people.
While I don’t want to dwell on our achievements, I think it is important that we recognise this progress; otherwise we will lose hope and lose confidence in our ability to set goals and achieve them. The opposition parties and the liberal media – which still overwhelmingly dominate the media as a whole – focus only on our weaknesses and, by and large, neglect to document and publicise the progress that has been made. For example the editor of The Mercury in today edition, has written a completely false and misleading and deeply cynical column insinuating that under this government led by President Zuma there is not a 'singular achievement, if any, it can brag about with pride and conviction'.
The likes of this editor go write ad nauseum about a so-called a crisis of leadership, yet keep silent about the crisis of capitalism, which they also blame on President Zuma. They say this government is not providing leadership, yet they are not judging us on how we are doing on the five priorities we have set as our goals. Print media, unfortunately now followed by the public broadcaster hardly cover positive achievements by this government led by President Zuma. They do this for a purpose: to belittle the democratically elected government that has been put into power by the majority of our people and to undermine confidence that the ANC can achieve anything of value.
I want to single out one major achievement of this government; we have increased life expectancy by providing ARVs, and there are many more.I challenge the editor of The Mercury to give government Ministers and the KZN provincial MECs two columns a week for the next three months to articulate what this government has achieved despite the many challenges we still face. Surely it cannot be that all what newspapers want is government advertising money but fail to give government space to articulate its programmes for our people to judge for themselves.
Our continuing challenges are largely in the area of the economy. We must acknowledge openly that South Africa remains a very divided society, that wealth is unevenly distributed. In addition, we must acknowledge that are still a developing country which needs to grow its economy, to make it more productive and to create jobs in order to raise the life-chances of the people as a whole, and especially those who are unemployed, poor and lack opportunities to raise themselves out of poverty.
This need to fight inequality and speed up economic growth has been captured in the concept of the “second phase of the transition”. Even before this concept was formalised in ANC policy, government has been developing policies for this new direction. The goal of creating a developmental state is recognition that the state must take active responsibility for social and economic development. It’s a recognition of the fact that, if we want to achieve social and economic growth with equity, we can’t leave our fate entirely in the hands of the market.
Economic liberalism (and its more recent and more virulent form, neo-liberalism) preaches that the state should not be involved in the economy, that we should rely on the market to ensure economic growth, create wealth create a free and prosperous society. The problem with this view is that, by their very nature, markets favour the rich. Unlike with political democracy where we have “one person, one vote”, in the market it’s “one rand, one vote”. The richer you are, the more you can spend, the more influence you have in the market.Markets therefore favour the wealthy and tend to work in their interests. A market dominated economy and society is therefore not a very good mechanism for dealing with the problems facing the poor.
I am not arguing here that there is no role for markets or that there is no role for the private sector. Even some socialist countries feel that their experience has shown that a lack of market mechanisms has detrimental effects. In South Africa, though, we have well functioning markets and a strong private sector but these have not helped us to eliminate poverty, overcome inequality or to create employment at anywhere near the level that we need it. So while I am not arguing for the elimination of markets or the private sector, I am arguing for the responsibility of the state to shape those markets to ensure that they contribute to the social good and for the state to intervene in the economy wherever necessary to ensure that national goals are achieved. On their own, markets can’t serve national or social goals such as eliminating the evils of unemployment, poverty and inequality.
The state, then, must have a crucial and central role in economic and social development. The South African government is currently taking some very important steps to this end. In his State of the Nation address this year, the President announced government’s intention to initiate a major infrastructure development programme. Implementation of this programme has already begun and the programme will be rolled out in the next few years. We expect it to make an important impact on job creation and providing opportunities for economic development. Just as important is the government’s intention to strengthen our industry and especially to develop manufacturing through local procurement and other forms of stimuli. Tourism has been growing in recent years – a major achievement given the economic problems in Europe – and we hope to continue strengthening it.
The Green economy is another area where we see large potential for job creation and economic growth, including developing sustainable energy sources, promoting efficient use of energy, developing environmentally-friendly ways to provide grow food, provide transport, construct buildings, and so on. Government’s efforts to win the international competition to host most of the Square Kilometre Array, have recently put South Africa on the map as far as space science is concerned; this will result in opportunities to significantly develop our scientific capacity which will no doubt also have economic and spin-off effects.
Education, it goes without saying, has a fundamental role to play in ensuring a developmental state and the attainment of genuine economic emancipation. Economic emancipation means that there are economic benefits for the masses of the poor, the workers, and even the labouring middle classes. It does not mean only freedom for the rich - and it certainly does not mean freedom for the corrupt and the tenderpreneurs.
Our ambitions for building a country that provides a decent standard of living for everybody can only be achieved if we can develop a population that has the abilities to run a sophisticated modern economy. Education – and especially post-school education – has a central role to play in the development of the knowledge and the skills of our people. Universities of technology, like this one, are obviously one of the nation’s leading vehicle to produced the mid- and high-level skills that the country so desperately needs, including technicians, technologists, engineers, managers and administrators, health personnel, tourism and hospitality experts, artists, journalists, and so on.
In order to have a developmental state, it is also necessary to have a capable state. Building the capacity of the government and other organs of state obviously also needs skilled personnel who can think systemically, analytically and creatively. In other words it needs highly educated people.
If the role of the student movement in the past was to rid the country of apartheid, now its central task is to ensure that the universities function properly and that students have the right atmosphere, adequate resources and the right motivation to learn and to qualify. This is the primary goal of the struggle for a better life for all today and student leaders should find creative was to do this. There are many strategies that can be used. For example, they could include:
These are just some examples of the types of productive activities that student structures could involve themselves in. I don’t want to be prescriptive but only to stimulate you to think deeply about your role in a new era. If student leaders ensure that they are familiar with the day to day problems that ordinary students face with their studies or their lives, as well as the challenges that we face as a nation, they can creatively find various ways of tackling them.
- Raising issues with university authorities or, through representative structures like SASCO or SAUS, with government.
- Organising students to assist one another, e.g. organising mutual assistance study groups or getting senior students to give some of their time to assist more junior ones.
- Finding ways to help first year students to make the big leap and to settle into university life.
- Finding ways, together with the university authorities, of ensuring that no student goes hungry.
- Organising activities to involve students in communities and community development activities and in assisting the less fortunate, whether they are poor, sick, elderly, orphaned or disabled.
- Opposing corruption wherever it is found, whether in the SRC or in the administration because corruption benefits a few at the expense of the many and is one of the major enemies of democracy and equitable development.
One of the biggest challenges that our universities have is the low pass rates – and consequently throughput rates. Many students take five or even six years to finish a three-year degree and many drop out and do not finish at all.This is not only a problembecause it puts up the cost of university education for the government and results in other students having to be turned away because the universities do not have enough places for them.
Most of all, it is a problem to those students who fail to complete or who take far too long to graduate. It shakes their confidence in themselves, delays the time when they can start to earn money, disappoint their parents and waste their money. In many cases these students are stuck with having to repay loans but do not have the earning capacity that a qualification can give them.
This is a major challenge for government and for the universities; but I think that it is also a major challenge for the student structures. If the student leadership does not do anything to help those hundreds of thousands of students countrywide who are struggling to complete their education, then they are not really providing the students with leadership in the areas that are most important. Improving the quality of education should be a central aim of university administrators and academics as well as of the student structures.
This means improving the quality of teaching but it also means improving the quality of learning.Students must do their best to learn as individuals, but student organisations must assist them by encouraging collective efforts to promote a positive attitude to studying. It is also important that students agitate for diversity in curricular so that they are exposed to many ideas and not a singular idea as is often the case now in our economics and social sciences curricular.
Students also have a duty to themselves to defend their universities since it is these institutions that provide the education and training which prepares young people to be the leaders of tomorrow. While it is obviously acceptable for students to protest when they feel that they are not being heard, protest should never be their first port of call. Even when it becomes necessary, the destruction of property – the very property that has been put in place to educate them – is totally unacceptable and should never be tolerated by either the SRCs or the university administrations. It is stupid to hide behind so-called radicalism to justify counter-productive and counter-revolutionary actions.
As a university community and as a country we also have a duty to build an education system of high quality. We all have to work hard to achieve this. Government is committed to progressively provide resources to build a quality education system. I am for instance concerned about the ease with which some of our universities award professorships. A professorship must be a badge of excellence, marking significant contribution to knowledge, especially new knowledge, and not a reward for loyalty to an institution or for fundraising money to establish a Chair in a university.
My main message to the student movement in particular is that we must take responsibility for our own education system and future. Let us not only advance demands, but must also set ourselves responsibilities of what we are going to contribute in building a better South Africa. To use the language of most of you, this is called revolutionary, as opposed to reactionary, student activism.
Lastly, let me say something about the relationship between study and work. Both are necessary for learning, especially at a university of technology where most education is career oriented. One of the most important problems that we are trying to tackle as government is the issue of work-integrated learning. We have been encouraging employers to take on learners from universities and form colleges to provide on-the-job training opportunities for university and college students.
The Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) have been directed to assist in this regard and the university authorities should work with them to develop and fund partnerships with employers. The state-owned enterprises and other large employers, in particular, should be engaged by universities in this regard. I understand the frustration of students who complete their academic training but can’t find practical opportunities for work-place training. I would urge the university administration, the Deans, Heads of Department and other relevant staff to take this issue very seriously. And, where my department can help, please do not hesitate to approach us.Our students need all the support they can get on this issue.
I would like to thank the SRC for inviting me to give this lecture and this opportunity to talk directly to the university community at this university. Students are the life blood of any university and DUT is no exception in this regard.
To Prof Bawa and the academic and support staff, let me say that, although I have focussed my talk on the challenges that face students, my department and the government as a whole really appreciates the work that you are doing – often under difficult circumstances – to educate South Africa’s youth and to strengthen SA’s research footprint. This university plays an important leadership in national organisations such as Higher Education South Africa (HESA), the SA Technology Network (SATN), the South African Society for Cooperative Education (SASCE) and, no doubt, other organisations of which I am not even aware. DUT is an important national asset and a key asset to this province.
I thank you all listening and I wish to pledge to staff and students the fullest support possible from my department for your efforts. To the students and the student leadership, let me conclude by saying that you come from a proud tradition of struggle. It is now up to you to carry it on, making it relevant to today’s challenges. I wish you well and look forward to working together with you.
Issued by: Department of Higher Education and Training
1 Oct 2012
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