Op-Ed: #FeesMustFall – A Bastardised Movement With No Sense Of Direction

My blog has stood untouched for several weeks now, simply because I haven’t had the energy, or the patience, to express my opinion objectively about the current state of affairs in South Africa.

For the first time in my life, I have deeply considered that my future does not lie below the Limpopo river, west of the Indian Ocean or east of the Atlantic. Why? At present, if you’re not reading a story about our finance minister facing criminal charges for his investigation into perhaps the most blatant case of corruption and cronyism in the history of our country (no small feat), or the ongoing saga involving South African student’s showing utter discontent with the state of tertiary education (while denying their fellow students access to that, albeit unaffordable, education), then you are probably reading Soccer Laduma (big ups to my colleagues on this one), where we’re incredibly proud of Mamelodi Sundowns’ 3-0 thrashing of Zamalek in the first leg of the CAF Champions League final.

So, with no intention of disregarding the other events, I would like to discuss the Fees Must Fall debate, which not only has elicited the  biggest emotional reaction as far as I’m concerned, but is also probably the most important story with regards to the future of our fine nation.

If you aren’t familiar with the reason behind the riots (I feel that the term “protests” doesn’t adequately describe what’s really happening) at our institutions of higher education – UCT and Wits most prominently – then I will try to break it down:

As a result of our terrible economy (where government is boasting about a quarter-on-quarter growth of 3,3%), our universities have had to ask for higher fees year after year, given that inflation seems to increase every year. So, with the cost of education being so high already, students have to fork out ridiculous sums of money that leaves them either unable to attend university or with a massive pile of debt to their names after they get their degrees. Now the main reason behind this is because government has failed to do its part by supporting the universities in covering their costs and because the government has done a bad job of helping the students themselves secure loans through NSFAS (National Student Financial Aid Scheme). And, another major part of the problem, to which students have attached the vast majority of their grievances to is the matter of structural inequality – a standing legacy of the apartheid regime – which boils down to the fact that white South Africans have access to a larger share of wealth, and therefore opportunities, than black South Africans, who make up the vast majority of the population. Ultimately this means that the students that will be hit hardest by fee hikes are black students, whose parents are unable to fill the gap that the government’s failure to provide loans and bursaries has created. The term that has become popular to describe this phenomenon is “white privilege”. The first thing that I would like to discuss with my fellow white South Africans is the fact that white privilege DOES exist.

Part I – The ugly state of higher education in South Africa

According to Statistics South Africa, in 2016 the South African population is made up of roughly 55,91 million people. 2013 estimates claim that more than 80% of the population is black, while just over 8% are white, another 8% are coloured and the rest are Asian or Indian. In terms of structural inequality, South Africa boasts the highest Gini coefficient in the world, where the figure has been variously estimated to be between 0,63 to 0,70 by KPMG and the United Nations Development Program. So, it goes without saying that South Africa is a remarkably unequal country where the difference between the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor is monumental, to put it lightly. And that gap grows every year, along with unemployment – which was 26,7% in March 2016, compared to 24,5% in the previous quarter, according to Trading Economics.

Is this high level of inequality defined by race? You bet it is. According to the Pew Research Centre, the average income per annum for a South African household in 2011 was R103 204.  In white households that figure stood at R365 134, in Indian households it dropped to R251 541, in coloured households that figure stood at R112 172 and the average black household earned R60 613. So, there’s no denying it, white South Africans have better access to wealth than anyone else.

But, the argument here is about education, isn’t it? In the national census of 2011, it was found that, among the South African population, 35.2% of black/African, 32.6% of coloureds, 61.6% of Indians/Asians and 76% of white citizens have completed an education of high school or higher. Even more damning, data on higher education in 2013 finds that university enrollment increased by 23% from 2008 to 2013, with 983 698 students enrolled at South African universities in 2013, as per the Council on Higher Education. Of those students, 171 927 (17,4%) were white, 53 787 (5,4%) were Indian, 61 034 (6,2%) were coloured and 689 503 (70,1%) were black. So, even though there are more black students in university in absolute terms, the demographics do not represent that of the total population and only 1,6% of the total black population has been afforded the privilege of a higher education, while almost 4% of the white population is able to attend university.

So these are the facts:

  • White South Africans earn more money than black South Africans
  • White South Africans have a higher standard of education than black South Africans
  • Relatively fewer black students have access to tertiary education than white students

So, for those who like to think that white privilege doesn’t exist, I hope this enlightens you. With that said, the numbers are generalized and there are always exceptions, but I’ll get to this later…

Now, as is frequently the case, I’m not going to make an argument for coloured or Indian South Africans (for which I am truly sorry, but this is an entirely separate argument). However, I will try to explain why this state of affairs exists. In 1990, South Africa’s population was made up of, roughly 35,2 million people. As was the case for the majority of the 20th century, the national party was only accountable for a small fraction of the population’s educational needs. Data is difficult to come by, but let’s assume that of 2,8 million (8%) white South Africans, 112 000 (4%) attended universities. That number was probably far lower, given that, in those days, it was far easier to find employment with a matric. So, in the intervening years, a new government (which had no experience in how to run a country and was riddled by instances of corruption, incompetency and other factors that degraded its ability to make provisions for the increased demand for education) had to cater for, roughly, 1000% more students, while trying to cater for increasing demands for basic education, healthcare, electricity and a number of other public goods.

So now, we are dealing with the consequences of the legacy of apartheid, combined with a steadily growing population that is now governed by incompetent buffoons like our minister for higher education, Blade Nzimande, who, when asked for a comment on the Fees Must Fall protests in October last year, said “students must fall” and has also recently been caught with his pants down when a female student, who he was f*cking, took a picture of his grotesque naked body.

Part II – Left “fallists” aren’t doing anything to help

This part is based far less on fact and far more on opinion. Now, while I acknowledge the existence of white privilege and, even though I can never truly empathise with the experiences of black students, I’m trying as hard as I can to try and relate to their struggles and support their quest for a free education. I truly believe that education is the best way to escape the poverty trap and, as a Marxist, I believe it should be free.

However, these “fallists” are frequently using bullsh*t rhetoric that criticises Western systems of education, not the difficulty of gaining access to it – which is what you’re fighting for aren’t you? The most prominent example of this is when students called for science to fall – saying that Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity was arbitrary and should be done away with. They are literally trying to disprove gravity and would rather pursue the study of Afrocentric beliefs of scientific knowledge, including the idea that you can cause lightning to strike somebody through thought alone (or gypsy magic, or voodoo – honestly, I don’t really understand it).  So these students have bastardised this movement from a struggle for free education to a struggle for Afrocentric education – something that I simply cannot endorse for scientific study. I can agree to it in the Arts faculty, to an extent. So these students need to come out and make a public statement where they call for Afrocentric universities if that’s what they truly want. I’d love to see you land a job with a qualification from one of these, but knock yourself out.

Furthermore, the movement has been turned into a sham because these students have forced their universities to shut up shop and suspend academic activity. The students who were more interested in making the most of their education were forcibly removed from their lecture halls and have been denied valuable hours in class that will be vital for their upcoming exams. I have yet to hear an explanation as to why this has happened, but I fear that, even if I do, the chances of it being legitimately justified are slim at best.

However, this is not what’s bothering me the most. What really is bothering me is what these students’ liberal ideologies that makes them think that make them think they are immune to being found guilty of hate speech or discrimination. They’ve read a couple of Steve Biko essays and maybe Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, and all of a sudden they think they’re Nelson f*cking Mandela! Let me remind you that these black students make up less than 2% of the black population, how many of them do you reckon have experienced real black struggles like not having access to running water or toilets, sleeping on the street or going to bed hungry? And how many of them do you think have parents that earn a decent living, that drive expensive cars, and how many went to former model C schools?

And yet, they feel that, by virtue of their skin colour they can throw the term “white privilege” into everyone’s face when their calls for the fall of science and western education are met with laughter and outrage. What about “black privilege”?

Following the transition from apartheid in 1994, before most of these students were born, the South African government formally introduced the racially selective Employment Equity Act in May 1998 which brought about some major changes in the labour market, with scores of black South Africans benefiting from what was planned to be a large scale of redistribution of wealth – intended to counteract the consequences of the system of apartheid. Now, while many black people were able to join the elite echelons of South African society, entering upper management positions in corporate entities, the majority remained impoverished and the only real change was that the fat cats in South Africa now looked a little less monochromatic.

Yet, all of these “fallists” make use of these new-age, hippie terms like “lived experiences” and have long-winded discussions about them in their “safe spaces” where no judgement can be passed, supposedly. Perhaps these safe spaces were created so that they could feel less ashamed by the fact that they left their fellow black South Africans in the mud while they sipped champagne and ate caviar in their mansions in Sandton, Ballito and Newlands.

But, this so-called liberalism, tolerance and acceptance comes with a clause. If you are not part of the majority, if you’re not a person of colour, if you’re not a member of a formerly marginalized group of people, there is no “safe space” and your “lived experiences” are not up for discussion. So, because this is my blog, my safe space, allow me to enlighten you what it’s like to be a South African white male.

Wherever I go, it is assumed that I come from wealth. This is plainly not true. I won’t deny that I have been afforded privileges and opportunities that anybody would be beyond satisfied with – I am well-educated, come from a loving family and have always had my basic needs met – but, I was raised by a single mother who had to raise three children on her own and inherited no kind of wealth from her family. Granted, she was a product of apartheid South Africa, but she entered the labour market with no more than a matric and had to work for everything she has today.

I grew up bearing witness to her struggle in convincing banks not to repossess our home, her struggle to gain meaningful employment with her race counting against here in every job application, every fight for a promotion. Not to mention the lesser discussed reality that women, on average, still earn far less than males in the working environment. Furthermore, if I am to roam the streets, I am subjected to judgement by my fellow citizens. Ask yourself, how many times have you been called a “white p**s” when you have no change to give a homeless man? On the same token, I grew up knowing that I had little to no choice when it came to going to university. The chances of me, as a white male, of getting a well-paying job are limited significantly due to my race and my gender – for no reason other than that I was born this way, not because I have done anything wrong. The 20th century (and pretty much the entire millennium, if not more) was defined by white men making the world their own and exploiting everybody else for it. The 21st century has, thus far, been defined by everybody else’s retribution for those evil acts committed by other men. My generation is paying the price. Is that fair?

Now this is my lived experience, but, as I said, I do believe that I am privileged for the most part. However, there are other white men out there that haven’t been privileged at all. Their parents didn’t enjoy a high level of education, they didn’t get three square meals a day, they haven’t had the chance to attend a good school and opportunities of employment are even more limited. I can’t imagine how they feel when they are being told that they enjoy the benefits of white privilege.

How many times has this view been addressed by the media? What makes a black South African’s lived experience deserve more airtime than a white South African’s? The answer may well be that black South Africans make up the majority of South Africa’s population. If this is so, then why does the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States get so much coverage?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying white South Africans experience the same kind of discrimination as black Americans. But at the end of the day, white people are discriminated against in the new and inclusive South African rainbow nation. When has a black man ever been indicted for hate speech when he used the term “Umlungu”, which is a racial slur no matter how you look at it, or when a political leader incites violence against white South Africans, does he get summoned to appear in front of the Human Rights Commission? Is this the South Africa our forefathers fought for? Is it OK to have this double standard? As a 25-year-old, I stand against it, and I hope to god that the “fallists”, who are supposed to be the future of our country, will not allow this general attitude to prevail. Otherwise, their movement loses any kind of validation and I fear that the state of our education system will never improve.

Final thoughts

So, what it boils down to, in my opinion, is that the grievances of South Africa’s disgruntled students is ultimately a result of the structural inequality that was created by the National Party and the apartheid regime. The existence of white privilege is something that everybody has to acknowledge and work to eradicate, by holding our existing government accountable for the improvement of our education system. However, as we learned in our transition to democracy all those years ago, the fundamental change that we so desperately need can only be achieved by a compromise on the behalf of both sides. The pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-liberal fallists need to stop stepping on their fellow students’ toes if the dream of a free, quality education is ever to be achieved. If we can’t do so, that will forever remain a pipe dream.


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