Black students still being suppressed - Vavi

COSATU general secretary says marks are being allocated racially

Zwelinzima Vavi's speech at the Launch of Right to Learn Campaign of the South African Students' Congress, University of Stellenbosch, 21 January 2011

The Right to Learn Campaign that SASCO is launching this year should be connected with our slogan that 2011 is the Year of Economic Policy Change.  The Campaign addresses the questions of access and success of students in higher education institutions. 

The Campaign seeks to address the questions of racial and other forms of discrimination, financial and other exclusion, the suffering borne by working class students due to lack of facilities, the fight against up-front registration fees, corruption and preferential treatment, administrative incompetence and insensitivity to the plight of working class students, etc.  At the heart of the Right to Learn Campaign is the struggle for free, quality public education.

COSATU fully supports this long-term objective of the revolutionary student movement.  In Morogoro we said: "We have suffered more than just national humiliation. Our people are deprived of their due in the country`s wealth; their skills have been suppressed and poverty and starvation has been their life experience". 

We then went on to say: "In our land this cannot be effectively tackled unless the basic wealth and the basic resources are at the disposal of the people as a whole and are not manipulated by sections or individuals, be they white or black".

The Right to Learn Campaign takes place against the backdrop of serious discussions about the developmental path that our country should take.  Our country, especially the working class, will be paralysed in this class struggle over the direction of our country, if the voice of the revolutionary student movement is not heard.

So far in these contestations, we have seen flip-flops and vacillations on key questions relating to the class character of the proposed new growth path.  These flip-flops take different forms: attack on the concept of decent work by the DA, attack on the labour law amendments, surreptitious sabotage of, and open attacks against, the National Health Insurance, the brushing aside of Free Education until the first degree, etc.

In this context, we should applaud the efforts of the current administration to take the resolution of the 52nd Conference forward without shame.  Cde Blade Nzimande has announced the commitment "to gradually introduce free education for the poor to undergraduate level", in line with the 52nd Conference.  There are proposed changes in the way NSFAS will dispense funds. 

An important development is that students in FET Colleges who qualify for financial aid will be completely exempted from paying fees.  We think these and other changes in the pipeline should encourage us to defend these gains.  When we said the 52nd Conference represented a "watershed" in the politics of our struggle we meant advances such as these.

However having said this, we should not forget that these gains will find uneven effect in different campuses.  As we mentioned before, administrative injustices are still rampant in many institutions.  The role of the revolutionary student movement in this conjuncture must be to serve as an "ear on the ground" for the ANC-led government to ensure that these gains find concrete expression.  What Cde Blade said in his media statement on the 10 January 2011, should be monitored carefully whether it is being implemented on the ground.

But the question of finances is one of the many problems.  The issue of the capacity of the tertiary education system is also pressing. The Department of Higher Education says that in 2011, there are 288 487 more learning opportunities that have been created.  The report on the 2010 Senior Certificate Results shows that 272 595 students qualify for Bachelor and Diploma studies. 

On average, there are just enough spaces to study for all those that qualify.  However, it is not clear whether Bachelor study opportunities correspond to the number of matriculants who want to pursue Bachelor studies.  Hence, we saw long queues in some of the institutions because students may prefer one line of study over the other.  Given the small margin of excess capacity that has been created, the system is not yet flexible enough to accommodate students regardless of location and choice of tertiary education.

Therefore one of the challenges that still have to be sorted out is the planning of the entire education system, especially the transition from school to tertiary education.  In our own Growth Path document, we estimate that on average, 400 000 young people did not proceed to tertiary studies on an annual basis, between 2003 and 2009. 

This of course has to do with students not succeeding in their matric exams, but another cause is the issue of capacity in the tertiary education system to absorb increasing volumes of in-coming students, coupled with the need to expand academic and support staff commensurately.

In the past few years, there have been reports that historically white universities were then bursting at their seams-students sitting on floors and taking lecture notes on their laps. Clearly there is a need to expand the entire tertiary education system, not just FET. 

Hence we should make sure that the construction of two additional universities takes place: one in the Northern Cape and the other in Mpumalanga.  We should also support the commitments contained in the National Skills Development Strategy III, to expand the FET sector by 150% and to recruit more than 20 000 additional lecturers into the FET sector and make sure that they are implemented.

Comrades, the question of access has to be linked to the types of study streams that students undertake.  The Report on the 2010 National Certificate Exams says that 31% of those who wrote mathematics got more than 40%.  This is disturbing. 

In the COSATU Growth Path document, we note that 3% of pupils who enter the schooling system eventually pass matric with higher grade mathematics.  This of course limits the ability of students to enter into those areas of study that are of a technical nature.  So, the question of access should also be extended to the issue of the fields of study.

Then comes the question of success.  Comrades, I think you should not let up on the continued suppression of Black students in general and African students in particular.  This Right to Learn Campaign must escalate the issue of preferential treatment and discrimination of students, so that those discriminated against are blocked from proceeding further with their studies.

As far as I can recall, there was a Commission that was set up to investigate racism in tertiary institutions; we need to get the findings of that report.  What Morogoro said about the "suppression of skills" of Africans still takes place to this day.  But what you must never allow, comrades, as you fight against these practices, is to let them instil in you a sense of self-doubt, a lack of confidence in your intellect. 

They give you ‘D's so that you do not proceed further with your studies and others unjustifiably collect ‘A's, but always know what this is meant to do: It is meant to destroy your confidence in your own intellect.

Let me close by going back to the Year of Economic Policy Change, 2011.  You see if you expect a progressive introduction of free education, expansion of the FET sector and the building of universities as we mentioned, etc. the biggest threat to all of this is the remnants of neo-liberal macroeconomic policies.  You should not be surprised to hear that all these promises will have been rolled over to the next administration if you accept that a restrained spending by government will be implemented in the foreseeable future. 

Therefore you should use this Right to Learn Campaign as a platform to launch your own engagement process with the government's new growth path. In so doing, it will be important that you take forward the perspectives of Morogoro which said: "unless the basic wealth and basic resources are at the disposal of the people as a whole", we will not be able to tackle the key challenges that we face, which include Access to Free Quality Public Education!

Issued by COSATU, January 21 2011

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