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Culture, Reality

Doctor Nzimande, I Presume

by Paul Hjul / Illustration by Alastair Laird / Images by Greg Nicolson / Daily Maverick / 17.01.2012

On Tuesday 10 January 2012, an unplanned sequel to Black Tuesday* rocked our country: a mother died and at least twenty other people were injured in a stampede at the University of Johannesburg.  The event, and the response by the Minister charged with responsibility for higher education, has all of the hallmarks of a fire in the Reichstag. It is for this reason that South Africans must fully unpack and consider the various underlying issues in this tragedy. Unfortunately, this is not what Minister Nzimande intends to do.

How, beyond the coincidence of the weekday are the events a sequel to Black Tuesday, you may ask? The opposition to the protection of corruption bill, approved by the National Assembly, is on a fundamental level driven by ordinary South Africans who are recognizing in that legislation the prospects of serious and irreversible erosions of the very core of our progressive constitutional democracy. The terrible state of how South Africa, as a society, and the government in particular, treats matriculants (and moreover the ideals of learning and critical thinking, in general) represents the other side of the coin of the ruling elite’s attempt to maintain absolute control over our society through the assault on the consciousness of the individual human being. After all, thinking is seditious to an authoritarian government, and people participating in such a vice are dangerous to the security and morals of the perfect dystopia envisaged by the visionaries in power. In case you missed the tone, I’m being sarcastic here.

As a people, South Africans are a diverse assortment of humanity thrown together by a history which is as rich as it has been tragic. Out of the travesty of apartheid, we as a people elected to form a constitutional state and our principal instrument of law is an internationally respected constitution. To suggest that the Constitution is perfect is to betray the very essence of the compact which forms the essence of a constitutional society and it is a good thing that South Africans of different walks of life and different political ideologies hold different views about the shortcomings of the Constitution. It is my deep and personal belief that the single greatest shortcoming of our constitution is the fact that the university system is not included in the provisions of Chapter 9 (where the Public Protector, Auditor General and Human Rights Commission are provided for). This chapter is headed “State Institutions Supporting Constitutional Democracy”, and there is no institution which has contributed more to the attainment of constitutional democracies around the world than higher education and well resourced libraries (of course I would advocate the substitution of the term “State” with “Public” as well). The corollary to this belief is the view that our constitutional democracy will not be secure until we have a culture of critical thinking, which is the mark of free societies.

Despite having held power for seventeen years, the ANC has failed to deliver a culture which embraces the ideal, formulated in the Freedom Charter, that the doors to learning shall be open (notwithstanding the caricature that is the cover of the Green Paper released after the tragedy). Instead, it has reinforced barriers and seconded the function of keeping the doors closed to institutional managers who have the difficult task of keeping a dysfunctional system functioning. The multitude of shortcomings in the education system has been the subject of tomes of passionate and dispassionate literature and experimentation. Several attempts at curing ailments in the education system have proved worse than the disease. Additionally it is fundamentally in the interests of the ruling elite to replicate inequalities in our society as an electoral trump card. When the government delivers on any of its promises, it does so under its terms and conditions and in a way that serves the ANC. This has been evidenced in many fields, particularly since 2000. If the ruling cabal is unable to achieve its vision for an institution (the courts, media, legal fraternity, mining sector and the universities) it harries together an attack, frequently by proxy, on the institution with empty rhetoric carrying the favourite term “transformation”. The government has been so busy playing these transformation games that it has dropped every pilot and moral compass in our society, leaving us with an increasingly unequal and less free society.

By 2012 we have a society where tens of thousands of pupils are deprived a good education for the duration of secondary schooling. The end of this schooling process is marked by an examination which most of our society uses as an indicator of the worth of many of these individual human beings. On the basis of their performance in the examination we allocate them to either a bachelor, diploma or certificate stream. Comprehensive institutions (such as the University of Johannesburg) offer programmes in at least two of the streams making the pool of people who find themselves eligible for admission exceptionally high. Further, the matric results are being released later, leaving less time to apply for tertiary education. Added to the pressure cooker is the fact that institutions must also deal with returning students, not to mention that taking up a place requires a big financial commitment.

In essence, Ms Sekwena died because of a system that does not work. If her death is allowed to be used as a pretext to render the system even more dysfunctional we are guilty of two great crimes: dishonouring her death and betraying the conscience of our nation.

In 2009, the Zumastration took the step of splitting the education sector, appointing an ardent Zuma-ite to control higher education. Dr Nzimande’s Mengel-ian register of “medicines” to treat the sector includes the particularly potent drug of government control over the admissions process. That the government should establish a national student admissions support agency which assists (potential) students and educational institutions in better co-ordinating and managing admissions is a separate issue to the (barely masked) centralism which underlies what the good doctor is aiming for. It is further absolutely clear that the current FET College system needs to be revamped, upgraded and used as the primary driver of ‘post-school’ education. However, a brief reading of the Green Paper ,and various literature on the Department of Higher Education and Training’s webportal, reveals a simple reality; it is not the intention of the government to allow these institutions any room to develop outside of its control. That Nzimande’s ministrations are contraindicated by the need for institutional autonomy (as a fundamental component of academic freedom) appears to be ignored in the hope that the public is so petrified in our current situation that we don’t consider the harm of the purported cure.

While the ANC must, as the ruling party (and on the face of its own promises and manifesto), take primary responsibility for the perilous state of education in South Africa, other political organizations (parties, lobby groups etc.) in South Africa must take their fair share of the blame. Not a single Member of Parliament has publically and consistently taken up the cause of the thousands of matriculants in whom so few people show any faith, and it is all too easy to score points on the basis of ANC fault.

The South African use of the term matric has proved to be particularly resilient and it seems that the idea of “matric” has become so powerful that it will not be withdrawn from our national vocabulary. Strictly speaking, in an education context to matriculate has historically referred to the process of entering a university (having your name enrolled on registration). However in several commonwealth countries (such as South Africa) the connection to the final year of school was readily made. Of course, this connection (and with it the idea of bridging secondary and tertiary education) is valuable. Built into the bridging idea is the expectation of guidance as a part of the non-academic activities of our schools – guidance which includes inculcating a capacity for critical thought and a belief in the individual as an autonomous, valued human being.

But unfortunately, this is the fundamental inequality in our education system: certain learners (and most white learners) are exposed to the opportunities and encouraged to choose and match their aptitude and wishes; whilst other learners are simply part of the “masses” maligned by society as a whole – viewed as voting cattle by political parties. A learner attending a functional school will have at least one member of the teaching faculty take an interest in their future. The learner will be provided with the opportunity and guidance to continue their studies. For other learners attending schools failed by the government, this is simply not the case.

Consequently, as a society we only have faith in learners from certain schools. As a society we do not believe in the value of everybody. That is the travesty of post-apartheid South Africa; a place where the “matric” has effectively become a substitute for the pass book system for many black youths. It gives access to the potential for some of the civic privileges assumed to be innately held by white children – regardless of their schooling. The devastating effect of this dangerous tendency is an absolute travesty for the affected individuals. Moreover, it undermines our nation’s soul and detracts from the culture of learning that is so desperately needed. In essence, the queues represent young people striving to matriculate – to enter into higher education – and the lack of order is merely a replication of the fact that post-apartheid South Africa has failed to conceptualise a society free of the servitude notions of Bantu Education.

What South Africa needs, and what we must demand, is a culture of the responsible minister serving the higher education sector, as opposed to the higher education sector serving the interests of the ruling elite. Until this culture is firmly entrenched, people will die in avoidable tragedies and thousands of valuable, meaningful human beings will be deprived of their dignity by a society that purports to hold dignity at its core. As South Africans, we must, in our own minds, unpack the tragedies and contradictions which so pollute our society. We must expose the hypocrisy of those in power. We must act in defiance of the tendencies that seek to undermine our consciousness.


* The day on which the government (who purport to be a people’s government) and ruling party demonstrated that they are fully under the control of a securocrat cabal – one which so fundamentally replicates the actions and attitudes of the apartheid regime that we can’t but recall Nietzsche’s aphorism of becoming the monster that we battle with.

Illustration © Alastair Laird.
Images © Greg Nicolson / The Daily Maverick.

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