/Extension of Education as human rights: South African experience – Yonela Mlambo

Extension of Education as human rights: South African experience – Yonela Mlambo

Yonela Mlambo | Cape Town Üniversity  – South Africa


To understand the contemporary barriers to tertiary institutions of learning in South Africa, we must be cognisant of, and locate South Africa in, its historical past, comprehend the geo-political economic liberal order, and the current failures of the nationalist led government of the African National Congress (ANC), as the distinct of parts of the whole. The 2015 #FessMustFall and #EndOutsourcing students’ revolts were manifestation of the above-mentioned phenomenon.

South Africa abridged education history

To comprehend the contemporary barriers to accessing tertiary education we must digress and delve in to the education history of South Africa. The barriers to tertiary institutions of learning in South Africa are largely experienced by the majority black students because of Bantu Education. Khuzwaya concurred with Tabata that the Bantu Education introduced by Verwoerd inconspicuously blurred the prospects of black students’ access to tertiary institutions of learning (Khuzwayo, 1985; Tabata,1959).  It is imperative that we become cognisant of Khuzwayo’s reservations of the British colonial education system abolished by the Bantu Education. Khuzwayo noted that the British colonial system was better than the Bantu Education. Nevertheless, Khuzwayo also notes that the British colonial education attempted to create ambiguous and ambivalent students to the rest of the black community (Khuzwayo, 1985).

Verwoerd’s envy of the British colonial education that produced elite, educated and civilised black people, introduced Bantu Education that was systematically designed to unskilled black people and reduced them to be the servants of the whole white South African population (Tabata,1959). To adequately capture Verwoerd’s Bantu Education policy, it is best to quote him at length. “My Department’s policy is that (Bantu) education should stand with both feet in the Reserves and have its roots in the spirit and being of Bantu society. .. . There is no place for him in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour.  … For this reason, it is of no avail for him to receive a training which has as its aim absorption in the European community. Until now he has been subjected to a school system which drew him away from his community and misled him by showing him the green pastures of European society in which he was not allowed to graze” (Tabata, 1959:38).

The above quote from Tabata by Verwoerd embodied the Bantu Education policy formulation that was to reduce black pupils to be servants of white South Africans. The systematic un-skilling of black teachers and subsequent un-skilling of black pupils ensued. Black pupils were prohibited from acquiring skills that would lead to the development of themselves and of their communities. For instance, studies such as carpentry were subjects forbidden to be taught to black pupils (Tabata, 1959).

Moreover, the qualified university black teachers became a threat to the regime. Thus, they had to be replaced with docile educators. Black teachers were subjected to tremendous humiliation when performing their duties as teachers. Such that, they could be abruptly dismissed from performing their duties at the volition of the colonial administrator. The schools that were built on white farms, had teachers who would be subjected to the clueless tyranny of the farmer about the education delivered. The white farmer could disturb the teaching anytime he felt that such disturbance would be beneficial to him. Likewise, teachers who worked at Bantustans schools were subjected to the tyranny of the so-called traditional leaders, most of whom were illiterate (Tabata, 1959).

Separate tertiary institutions of learning were, institutionalised with no infrastructure investment. The separate tertiary institutions of learning had to correspond with the basic education of Bantu Education policy formulation. The disparities of funding for the black learners with that of white learners were so huge. The government tremendously cut the budget spending on the education of black learners to the extent that…. “both the teacher and the class-room will be able to serve two different groups of pupils every day” (Tabata, 1959:37). Bantu Education thus corresponded with the needs of the Apartheid government by creating a cheap, black labour force as the black pupils received an education that gave them no skills.

Therefore, to comprehend the contemporary barriers of access to tertiary institutions of learning it is salient that we look at how a geo-political economic neo-liberal order hinders access to tertiary education for the black students in South Africa.

Geo-Political economic neo-liberal order

When South Africa gained its independence in 1994 it was confronted with the geo-political economic order that saw the triumph of a neo-liberal order (Reddy, 2015). In response, the 2015 #FeesMustFall and #EndOutsourcing uprisings were the manifestation of neo-liberal order discontent. The neo-liberal order took the private sector posture of efficiency that saw the commodification of basic public services such as education (Johnson, 2001, Luckett and Pontarelli, 2016). Harvey (2011:75) adequately captures the logic of neo-liberal commodification of basic public services such as education. The neo-liberal logic of commodification of education is current rearing its ugly head in South Africa. We shall get back to this point at a later stage of the paper to demonstrate how education is commodified in South Africa.

 The commodification of education in South Africa nullifies the notion of South Africa exceptionalism as the commodification of education in the country follows the path other African countries coerced to embark post-independent. Moreover, Mamdani (1998) adequately illuminates and debunks the South Africa exceptionalism.

Further afield, Makerere University’s marketisation locates South Africa within the broader African experience and serves as an archetypical representative case study of the commodification of the tertiary education on African continent and elsewhere in other continents. At the behest of the World Bank, Makerere University was commercialised and saw the vocationalisation of the University as a whole (Murunga, 2007).

South African tertiary education also shared the same experiences with that of Makerere University. In the 1990s South African universities began to embrace the neo-liberal policies of efficiency that extended to public institutions (Johnson, 2011, Luckett and Pontarelli, 2016). The universities started to embark on the journey of ‘rightsizing’; distinguishing the ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ approach that lead to outsourcing and significant retrenchments (Johnson, 2001). The retrenchments didn’t bring a moratorium in fee tuition increments. Rather, the fees continuously skyrocketed. As a result, this gave rise to the student uprisings under the banner of #FeesMustFall and #EndOutsourcing.

However, it is salient that we first conceptualise the above-mentioned student uprising and unravel how the invisible, yet powerful, hand of the private sector benefited from the outsourcing and commodification of tertiary education. When outsourcing was initiated in the 1990s, as we have seen from the above, there were significant retrenchments. That meant the workers, who are also the parents to the students, had to find means of funding to fund their children’s tertiary education after retrenchment (Johnson, 2001, Luckett and Pontarelli, 2016). We cannot limit retrenchment to tertiary education. South Africa has been experiencing high rates of unemployment rate post-1994. Other sectors were affected by the triumphant of the neo-liberal order.

The retrenched workers lost their benefits, such as bursaries for their dependents, from which their children largely benefited (Johnson, 2001). Moreover, most of the students affected by the outsourcing were and still are the black students as the former homeland universities were the sites of employment (Johnson, 2001). Thus, it is for that reason during the #FeesMustFall and #EndOutsourcing we witnessed most of the black students’ participation. This is by no means an attempt to devoid and/or to negate the plight of some students that the fees were, and still are, affecting them too. Likewise, this is not an attempt to suggest that black students are homogenous. It is to highlight that most of the students in South Africa who face barriers to accessing tertiary education are black students.

When the parents got retrenched through outsourcing, the private sector benefited from this unfortunate event as the workers who were ‘successfully’ outsourced have their salaries significantly reduced to meagre salaries. Supercare or Metro are the companies that largely benefited from the unfortunate outsourcing phenomenon and other private catering contracts went to Fedics company and many other private companies (Johnson, 2011). Victimisation and exploitation of workers soon ensued after the outsourcing phenomenon (Johnson, 2011; Luckett and Pontarelli, 2016).

The private sector largely benefited from outsourcing. The private sector benefited from outsourcing as parents had to find other means of financing their children’s education notwithstanding the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) with its limitations introduced by the government to mitigate barriers to accessing higher education. Despite NSFAS efforts to curb the barriers to accessing higher education, student financial exclusions still exist. There are students who have been excluded because, it is said, either NSFAS didn’t pay or only paid half of their fees for either Summer and/or Winter schools. One of the students, Tokelo (pseudo name to protect student), had to deregister at the beginning of 2018 academic year because NSFAS didn’t pay his Summer school fees. Here the University of Cape Town is used to be the archetypical case study of either financial and/or academic exclusion and because the writer previous experience serving at one of the university faculties)

Furthermore, NSFAS limitations is its threshold annual salary requirements for funding. For most black families in South Africa, the notion of nuclear family is not prevalent and with the current high unemployment rate working people, in one way or another, are likely to financially support extended family members. Thus, making the NSFAS monetary threshold reach its limitations.

The failures of the African National Congress Government

In a normal democratic state, poor service delivery by the government, such as late textbook delivery by the basic education department at schools at the beginning of the year, would serve to be the impetus to the electorate to vote for and/or give the opposition parties a chance to lead the government. However, in a country such as South Africa, a settler colonial state, that is unlikely to happen.  If it happened, the nationalist ruling political party might become obtuse to relinquish power. Zimbabwe is the archetypical case for such, where the opposition party won the elections, but the ruling party refused to relinquish power because the ruling party’s mentality in a settler colonial state that they have the prerogative of “governing” their so-called states (Mangcu, 2008). Nonetheless, the National African Congress (ANC) also has that prerogative mentality to govern South Africa to the extent one would hear ANC officials saying they would rule South Africa until Jesus come back. The 2016 local government elections and the recent general elections, however, seem to suggest that the ANC could peacefully relinquish power if it could be defeated in the general elections.

When the ANC won the first democratic elections, politico-philosophico principles were proclaimed that the black people expected more from the black led government (Reddy, 2015). Given the education history of South Africa, where black people were denied access to both basic and tertiary education, the assumptions were that access to education and many other rights that are considered to be basic human rights, were going to be priorities of the ANC led government.

Little did they (the newly enfranchised black voters) know that  a predominantly black led government by the ANC, together with its tripartite alliance, its priorities was to loot the state coffers to the extent that Smuts Ngonyama publicly said they didn’t go in to exile to be poor (Reddy, 2015). When it came to education policy, the ANC government was found wanting, changing policies with no proper education plan on how to educate and skill black people. Jansen (2011) articulated this well despite his analysis located at basic education. Nevertheless, Jansen’s (2011) assertions cannot be merely dismissed, they are worthy to be interrogated. This is because when the basic education system is in a shambolic state it blurs the access to tertiary institutions of learning for the learners as basic education is the fundamental prerequisite to tertiary institution.

Jonathan Jansen (2011) states that public schools, which are largely attended by black pupils, produce poor matric results with high failure rates. The high failure rates in public schools are concealed by the national pass rate that includes the white pupils and middle-class pupils’ high-performance rates (Jansen, 2011:101). The picture painted here is that race and class in post-apartheid South Africa are still the significant factor in determining learners’ prospects of accessing higher education and success prospects.

The enervating effort by the ANC led government to provide access to education is not that different from the apartheid regime. The Bantu Education aimed at creating a docile black “subject”. It is the same with the ANC government. To continue to have more votes, having more docile black voters who wouldn’t hold them accountable, the ANC skilfully denies them access to higher education. The assertions that ANC skilfully denies black voters’ access to quality and tertiary education for electoral support manifest itself during campaign times. The pronunciations by the ANC officials to black voters during campaign times echoes my views. Their pronunciations lack substance and are irrational and thanks to the docile voters they created, they are not held accountable for their contemptuous treatment of black voters. The Marikana Massacre is one of the many phenomena of the inhumane treatment the ANC government continues to unleash on black voters.

What needs to be done

Now that the diagnosis has been done to the barriers to accessing higher education a remedy would be anticipated. A plethora of solutions to demolish barriers to accessing higher education have been proposed and others have been rejected, such as the Ikusasa financial aid scheme, which was entrenching in the neo-liberal order. Moreover, what is more perturbing is that even the erstwhile kleptocrats defenders have weighed in, in search of a remedy to the barriers to accessing tertiary institutions of learning. However, to rational citizens the remedies from the erstwhile kleptocrats defenders and looters of state coffers, cannot be trusted and the current kleptocratic allegations levelled against them further perpetuate and reinforce the feeling that their remedies are not to be trusted. The erstwhile kleptocratic defenders and current kleptocrats shouting for the expropriation of land without compensation and nationalisation of the banks to fund tertiary education are to be rebuffed, because they are mere rhetoric and populist. The socio-ecological conditions caused by the industrial agriculture on the land they say is to be expropriated without compensation is not taken into consideration nor is the lack of skills of the black people to farm.

The current economic and political climate in South Africa is not even close in being conducive for free education. The forth and the fifth administrations systematised corruption, therefore, even if the land could be expropriated without compensation and the banks are to be nationalised, only the ruling elites would benefit from such measures.

Currently, what is supposed to be a South African imperative is to have ethical leaders rather the current self-ambitious leaders whose pronunciations are politico-philosophico principles in lieu of a concern with the re-establishing of proper functioning public institutions and public enterprises. Currently South Africa needs to be more inclined toward the internal development of its citizens with the little fiscus it has. The economic and political conditions forbid South Africa to be philanthropic now. The circumstances dictate South Africa must spend rationally whatever resources it has for the economic growth and development of the country. This will ensure that South Africa is able to continue with the current funding system (NSFAS) for immediate short-term goals and then in future be able to roll out free education to the poor students.

Reference List

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