The Universities: After the Fallism

Douglas Gibson says the wrecking of our institutions of higher learning is outrageously destructive

Will University education have to be privatised?

Those South Africans who pay the overwhelming bulk of income tax receive very little back from the government. 

They have had to privatise their security, paying for electric fences, burglar bars, sirens and security company contracts.

They have had to privatise their children’s primary and secondary education: paying significant fees to state schools to maintain standards or else sending their children to private schools.

Because they do not receive reasonably acceptable medical treatment at state hospitals, they pay thousands each month to buy medical aid cover.

Public transport generally is inadequate and sometimes non-existent, so people must own cars with all the consequential expense.

Tertiary education is expensive and taxpayers generally pay university fees for their children.  Up to now that has seemed like a sound investment.

Personal taxpayers receive very little back, despite being highly taxed.  They carry the burden, mostly willingly, of funding our social welfare state giving more benefits to the poor than any other developing country.

Now it seems the same people must reconsider university education for their children.  If the anarchy at our universities continues for much longer, people will pay whatever is required to fund university education at private universities, or else at foreign universities. 

As a grandparent of a boy and a girl now aged 22 months, can I look forward to Wits and UCT being worth attending in the year 2033?  I will be rather mature by then if I am not already in Heaven. Will my children have to send their children to a foreign university where the university authorities, and not a minority of students, are in control?

Will income taxpayers be funding their own family studying overseas or privately, while paying for other people’s children to enjoy free education at institutions still styling themselves “universities”?

 I have sympathy for students struggling to live and pay fees.  No academically fit person should be denied an education because she or her parents cannot pay.  However, I am adamant that given all the other spending priorities there ought to be a repayment when the student qualifies and earns a decent salary.  The 49 per cent who fail, after being financially assisted, ought also be required to pay back the money.

 In a developing country like ours where we have abysmal physical conditions in many of our primary and secondary schools in the rural areas but also in many townships, there is no justification for providing free tertiary education to already advantaged young people if they can pay.  Those who can pay, or whose families can pay, should pay.

Why should they have free university education when the parents of many schoolchildren have to scrimp and save to pay school fees? Or when millions of unemployed young people receive no help? Or when granny’s pension is so small that she can barely subsist? Or when many of our state hospitals are in a shockingly neglected condition?  All of these have to compete for funds from the national budget. 

The #feesmustfall campaign initially enjoyed a good deal of public support.  That has disappeared as the agenda changed to one of violent thuggery and lawlessness aimed at bringing universities like Wits, despite the best efforts of Adam Habib, to their knees.

 The burning of close on a billion Rand worth of assets, the looting, the assaults of policemen and women, the attempted murders and the petrol bombs may have the support of some misguided clerics who want the police and security personnel to be withdrawn.  Other more sensible people realise that the issue now goes far beyond a question of fees. This is a power thing and no longer a fees issue.

The destroyed assets were paid for – not by the criminals who burnt buildings down – but by taxpayers like me. They will have to be replaced and paid for by us, not by these criminals, none of whom have been charged and brought before the court.

Another huge negative has been the undemocratic and ruthless attitude of largely self-appointed “leaders.”  Only their view is valid.  Others who want to study and complete the year are colonialist sell-outs or worse and they are there to be intimidated into silence.

The liberal response to violence and lawlessness is certainly not to say, “There there, your cause is just.”  The proper liberal response is to insist on the restoration of order, if necessary by force, followed by rational dialogue if this is possible. In our parliamentary democracy, we are all equal and we all have rights and responsibilities. Other people’s rights are as important as our own and those who deprive other people of their rights deserve to be arrested, charged and tried, and if convicted, to be punished appropriately.  Someone who burns down a building needs a few years in jail to contemplate what democracy is about.

The calibre of at least some of the leaders fills one with apprehension.  No doubt, there are sincere, decent young people among them, but when students look up to the likes of Mcebo Dlamini, there is something seriously wrong.  Mr Dlamini is the person who said, “I love Adolf Hitler.”  He also said, “In every white person there’s an element of Adolf Hitler.”  He has now declared himself the vice-chancellor of Wits University.  He is in need of psychological counselling instead of enjoying clout as a “leader.”

It’s time students, their parents, clerics, and the community woke up to the consequences of lawlessness and anarchy.  Ruining our universities and wrecking this academic year are outrageously destructive. The universities will not decide the fee issue.  If students want to demonstrate, a peaceful vigil outside Luthuli House and the Union Buildings will spook the government that sparked the crisis by reducing university funding.  But the universities must reopen and complete the year. If force has to be used then, unhappily, so be it.

A former Opposition Chief Whip and former ambassador to Thailand, Douglas Gibson is a keynote speaker and a writer.  Follow him on Twitter @dhmgibson.

This article first appeared in The Star.