The year 2020 was one of the most difficult and challenging years in the history of the modern world, in that countries throughout the globe were affected by the outbreak of the coronavirus. South Africa was no exception to this. After President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the country would go into lockdown, institutions of higher learning were forced to close their doors with no students physically on campuses.
At the Wits University, students were forcefully evicted from the Wits student residence, which included private accommodations. During this process, the university failed to acknowledge that students were coming from different backgrounds. For some students, universities are the only safe spaces for them to fully apply their minds to their studies.
Despite the difficulties students faced in their homes from gender-based violence, rape, poverty, load shedding, connectivity issues, etc, many students still managed to pass. Even those who failed were allowed to come back after they provided the university with valid reasons as to why there could not cope with the 2020 academic year.
It is important to note that many bursaries, including NSFAS and other forms of government funding, failed to settle fees for many students. This included self-funding students – these are students who are seen to be too rich to be on NSFAS, scholarships, bursaries while they are also too poor to afford Wits fees.
Many businesses failed while others closed down. This resulted in high numbers of unemployment which affected many parents in that they could not pay the exorbitant university fees. Not only did the coronavirus only affect business or result in unemployment, but many families lost the only breadwinner of the family and many university students lost the only parent or guardian they had.
Institutions of higher learning have failed to acknowledge the above-mentioned facts of the year 2020. It is not the fault of students. Therefore, students cannot be punished for the fact that they lost their parents who were the only breadwinners in their homes. Students cannot be punished for failures of the NSFAS, the ANC-led government, and bursaries that failed to pay institutions of higher learning.
University must adopt student-centered approaches that will allow all students to register. The Wits Student Representative Council (SRC) has already submitted its memorandum of demands to university management. Amongst them is the fact that 2020 was an abnormal year for students, therefore no student must be financially or academically excluded, all students must be allowed to register.
The new Vice-Chancellor of Wits University Prof Zeblon Vilakazi is powerless in that he has no powers to make decisions by himself. The owners of the university are using him to entrench and to create a gap between young black minds and young white, Indian students. This is evident in that under Adam Habib the Vice-Chancellor had powers to decide whether to meet students and could take decisions on the spot. This is so because Adam Habib was not black. The Vice-Chancellor’s position has been reduced to a ceremonial position while Prof Zeblon Vilakazi is the puppet on the position. This has been done intentionally to undermine black minds, in that the intentional sabotage of Prof Zeblon Vilakazi will lead to his failure as a black Vice-Chancellor.
To illustrate this, between the years 2015 and 2016 Fees Must Fall protest I was one of many students who were pardoned by Adam Habib when he was the Vice-Chancellor. This was after the then SRC had demanded that the university must negotiate in good faith by first pardoning all the suspended students. However, on the 12 of March 2021 when the Wits SRC demanded that the suspended students including SRC members be pardoned, it was said, over and over by the so-called advisory committee of the Vice-Chancellor Prof Zeblon Vilakazi, that the Vice-Chancellor had to consult the university before he could take such a decision. This testament to the assertion we make that the Vice-Chancellor has no powers and this is because he is black.
Secondly, Adam Habib, for many years during the university protest, was able to decide on whether to allocate additional funding towards the Hardship Fund, which was created by the Wits SRC in 2018. While Prof Zeblon Vilakazi cannot even comment on the Hardship Fund and let alone telling us the specific criteria used by the university to distribute the so–called Vice-Chancellor COVID-19 Relief Fund.
On the other hand, the internal issues of the ANC are indeed affecting the state of higher education in the country. In that the decisions that are being taken are not aimed at addressing the issues faced by institutions of higher learning, but for ANC officials to protect their selfish interests. For example, the president introduced the R500 billion COVID-19 package which was borrowed from the IMF. However, none of this money has gone towards NSFAS or to capacitate public institutions. This money has been allocated to the majority of white companies that funded the Presidential campaign of Cyril Ramaphosa, better known as the CR17, and the so-called friends of the president.
It is evident in the South African case of governance that the party that wins majority votes leading to majority seats in Parliament will be the one having its party members in government. These party members are expected to be executors of party mandates at all times. In the spirit of party discipline, it is then expected that party members execute party resolutions in government for the elimination of the challenges that exist in this country. Education has become the primary instrument in this economy and the vehicle to eliminate the inequality based on race and gender in our country.
The challenges in institutions of higher learning require the utmost unity of party members in its leadership and those deployed in government to ensure the full resolute implementation of free quality education in South Africa. Out of the internal conflicts, decisions being taken are not aimed at addressing the issues faced by institutions of higher learning but for ANC officials to protect their selfish interests and gain support for their ambitions to land themselves in prominent positions. This brings into question the effectiveness of deployed party members in government as to whether they are executing the task at hand genuinely or they are pleasing supporters in the conflict of leadership that seems to be taking place. These are the very things that affect the standards of good and reliable governance.
Due to these internal conflicts, we have seen the personalisation of the call for free quality education from certain individuals than a concern of the party in government. We note that owing to these conflicts between those leading the party and those in government throwing blames at each other, it hinders the execution of party resolutions into government.
Before one can attempt to answer the question of free education on whether free higher education was a Jacob Zuma promise, a government one, or an ANC one, we need to look back into the history of our country, South Africa – that during the struggle against apartheid, the ANC adopted the Freedom Charter as their policy document. One of the pillars of the Freedom Charter is that ‘Doors of Learning Shall Be opened’ in that education shall be free, compulsory, universal, and equal for all children and that higher education and technical training shall be opened to all. Therefore, the ANC as the governing party has to deliver on its promise of free education.
The assertions made by Blade Nzimande when he said the issue of free education was not a government commitment, proves to us that the man has no understanding of the intertwined relationship of government and the ANC. These assertions demonstrate selfishness and the fact that the old people in the ANC have no interest in advancing the struggle of the black majority. Therefore, it is our duty, our calling as students, as young people, as leaders within institutions of higher learning to fight for what is right and stand up against any attempts to exclude the children of the poor and working-class to preserve white dominance.
We must also not accept this assertion by the so-called Communist Minister of Higher Education as he has proven all the time the lack of willingness when it comes to the implementation of free quality education. These are just some of the excuses he keeps on bringing up when the matter at hand is in the discussion. For us, as the student body, we say to Blade Nzimande irrespective of what Zuma might have said or not, our demand is the implementation of free quality education. Do not drag our call into your factional squabbles. You must foster the implementation of free quality education.
Cebolenkosi Samuel Khumalo is the current Chairperson of Wits South African Student Congress (Sasco), and former Legal and Constitutional Policy Officer of Wits SRC.