The Chief Executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Tutu Fellow, Sello Hatang, has found hope in the violence-plagued student protests in South Africa. In an article published in Business Day, he makes the case that while the physical violence during the student protests is worrying, the #FeesMustFall movement is cause for hope.
To secure a better future for the country, young South Africans must take responsibility for making the country the place of their dreams. He cautions that rising education costs place burdens on entire extended families who have been pushed to the brink supporting students obtaining an education. Despite the disturbing images of heavy-handed police action, there have been scenes of hope, solidarity and active citizenship displayed by students. Hatang says important - and difficult - questions raised by the movement include why has transformation in a post-apartheid South Africa been so slow? And he doesn't shy from saying that it may require keeping the option open for alternatives to the current status quo. Hatang says "Education is central to the success of our people and was a priority for Nelson Mandela" and that not making it a priority is a lesson "we ignore at our peril."
The full text can be read on the Nelson Mandela Foundation website as the October 2015 newsletter and is published below. The image on this page is from PRI.org.
Student protests: a moment to listen and reflect
“I am not an optimist, because I am not sure everything ends well. Nor am I a pessimist, because I am not sure that everything ends badly. I just carry hope in my heart.” – Václav Havel
The #FeesMustFall movement by students across the country has given us hope and shown us what is possible if we are determined to do things differently. It has, however, also left us with great concern as the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF).
The movement should not come as a surprise to many South Africans. Dialogue work conducted by the NMF and the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation on campuses with young people over the past two years highlighted high levels of frustration and alienation. Worryingly, yet again, physical violence has become the language of engagement.
And yet we draw hope from what is unfolding. We need young South Africans to take responsibility for making the South Africa of their dreams. We need young South Africans with enough hope to reach for a better future. South Africa needs action now – from the state, from the academic community, from students – that encourages all of us to carry hope in our hearts.
Disturbing images have flooded our computer and television screens, newspapers and mobile phones as the heavy-handed actions of police responded to a determined student movement. Stories of poor students and parents who battle to make ends meet have flooded Facebook and Twitter. These stories are moving and sad and often follow a similar narrative – people save whatever cash they have to assist family members to get through university and have the opportunity to work, to increase social mobility and to lift families and communities out of poverty.
We’ve heard the heart-wrenching stories of grandmothers’ pensions being used to pay fees, of mothers who toil at low-paying jobs to educate a child whose career will benefit our country, economy and future development. Yet, as the above inflationary fees increase, the pressure placed on those supporting the students increases to unsustainable levels.
At the same time, we have witnessed scenes of hope, solidarity and active citizenship. We have seen students forming protective shields to allow others to pray, and have watched white students standing at the front lines to protect others. We have seen students and others working together to clean up after the protests and selflessly volunteering their time and money for the cause. Most inspiring are students putting education first, setting up mass student study sessions and tutoring services with support from both inside and outside of institutional structures. These are scenes that leave us with hope in our hearts, aware that a better future is possible.
These developments took me back to my own university days, when I went through similar experiences (as did those who went before me). And the vicious cycle continues to play itself out more than 20 years later.
Worried parents, I’m sure, cling to hope as they watch these tragic events unfold and hope that their children can at least write their exams. The protests have again highlighted how historical legacies now determine not only the future of a single generation, but of generations to come. Those without are destined to struggle and fight as rising costs make education unattainable.
The movement and the public discourse that has swirled around it have raised many important questions. Why has transformation in post-apartheid South Africa been so slow? What do we mean by transformation? How do we fix a struggling education system? What has happened to South Africa’s capacity for negotiation, dialogue, mediation and peacemaking? In a democracy, what are the limits to protest action? What are the limits to the maintenance of law and order? When, if ever, is violence justifiable? How do we balance immediate needs with long-term strategic objectives? How do we all foster discipline in the context of communities that are enraged?
Something has gone wrong that needs fixing. It’s time to ask the hard questions on what’s wrong and, importantly, how we fix it. We owe our youth the promise of freedom: of better education, the opportunity that a career affords, of social mobility, of a more vibrant and enriched society, and the chance of a better life. It is one that is tied to our own humanity, dignity and future.
One thing for certain is the current funding that tertiary education is inadequate to meet the needs of growing student numbers at tertiary level. Within the context of reduced budgets and increased student numbers, universities are battling to meet student needs.
While progress has been made in terms of selection criteria and access to funding, and student populations are closer to representing the national demographic, we seem to be sitting on a powder keg of dangerously unrealised dreams. Students are carving a path for their own destiny and are no longer prepared to wait for the natural course of history to recalibrate what’s wrong. They want change and they want it now. Best we listen.
We have to keep the option open for a different discussion that may consider creative alternatives to the current status quo, which doesn’t appear to be working for the majority of students at higher education institutions.
Now is the time to consider how we improve resources for chronically underfunded tertiary education; what level of fees makes education both accessible and affordable; what role business plays in supporting education; and how we improve relations between students, university authorities and the government to prevent a resort to extreme measures in order to be heard.
At the same time we must be aware of multiple challenges outside of tertiary education – challenges that lie ahead for the country, caught in a cycle of low growth and an expanding deficit. Managing priorities remains a concern as the multitude of challenges in healthcare, education, transport, energy and infrastructure weigh down on a strained fiscus. It is clear there is a need for transparency, innovation and social cohesion in developing the South Africa we imagine.
Education is central to the success of our people and was a priority for Nelson Mandela, who never failed to stress its importance to young people. More recently, Professor Thomas Piketty, in his address at the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, highlighted education as one of the most significant factors around the globe in reducing inequality and lifting people out of poverty.
These are lessons we ignore at our peril. We know that South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and we depend on education to help us rise above these difficulties.
We are concerned about the failure of dialogue, in the great South African tradition, to talk about these difficult issues. Dialogue was used to great effect in our transition, and one would expect that we create the space for meaningful engagements that produce tangible results for our students, institutions of higher learning and our own futures.
The protests signal the growing inability to engage in robust, meaningful and honest dialogue. This is especially apparent when there is a need for a conversation across economic, racial and generational lines. The turn towards continued protest by the youth over the past few years signals the frustration of many in increasingly dire circumstances; the youth have joined many other communities in seeing protest as the only viable form of political communication.
The legacy of Mandela is that we need to be involved in dialogue and conversation to achieve meaningful change. The fact that students needed to disrupt a national gathering to gain the attention of the state signals a problem, as does any response that results in violence.
We call for calm from students, law enforcement agencies and university administrators as we grapple with difficult new developments. We call on students to go back to class and write their exams while we evaluate the gains made thus far.
As we continue to engage in constructive dialogue, we have to seek the path that recognises the students’ legitimate concerns, current government and university funding constraints, and innovative solutions. We caution against criminalising protests and any other action that may inflame an already volatile situation.
We assure students that crucial lessons of listening continue to be learned by all. We must continue to listen to pleas of the poor without waiting for violent marches. We must hear concerns of young people and consider their issue serious, not only for their future, but also for ours.
So much of what students protest about is also a reflection of what’s wrong with our society. We are here to listen, and the Nelson Mandela Foundation is committed to helping in whatever way it can, along with all the relevant institutions and stakeholders, to find sustainable solutions.