By Pinky Khoabane
EFFORTS to derail any struggle for the poor that doesn’t ultimately benefit the wealthy can be spotted long before the plan is afoot. The struggle for free education which does not include financial institutions, is one such case. Food, health, water, sanitation and housing are some of the basic needs on which there are fiercely contested battles.
In an assault on citizens, and it’s not just in South Africa but around the world, these basic needs have been commodified as part of the era of neo-liberalism that has ensured that good quality basic needs can be accessed only by the rich, leaving the poor to remain in the death trap of poverty, inequality and unemployment.
Tertiary funding in South Africa, and other countries like the United Kingdom, has largely been based on student loans. While young people are encouraged to enter institutions of learning as a means of escaping the poverty trap, the truth is that a capitalist society doesn’t honestly want everyone to be educated – it doesn’t want to reduce inequality and poverty. Its beneficiaries dont want to have to share the wealth but more than anything else, they fear the real threat of the poor annexing power and overthrowing them.
So, no, the idea that the Oppenheimers and Ruperts who, according to Oxfam, have wealth equal to the poorest 50 percent of the country (i.e. 26.5-million people) want the rest of the population to catch up with them and their friends is a fallacy. It doesn’t help that we’ve had a government which has been so beholden to business and the international monetary system that it kow-tows to the whims of the rich.
And so, access to tertiary education is made difficult by placing the burden of funding on the individual.
Enter those shrewd institutions called banks and in tow their subsidiaries, called media, who are owned by the same people who own the banks and propped-up by other big corporations as advertisers. What you end up with is a “justifiable” large-scale student indebtedness, which Noam Chomsky describes as “a technique of indoctrination and control”. The media perpetuate the myth of student indebtedness as part of normal life.
Stories of students who remain in life-long debt abound. And this is not a phenomenon with which the wealthy, largely white in the South African context, will be familiar. Black students leave universities with huge debt and are saddled with the obligation to help their families educate siblings and lift them out of poverty too. Such is this reality for Blacks that the phrase “Black Tax” has been coined to describe it.
And once they’ve left these institutions, most are faced with unemployment and are unable to service their debt. Their names are blacklisted, further hindering the opportunity for employment. It’s a vicious cycle that has left many young people in what is now called the NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training).
Private Banks Offering Loans As Part of Fee Free Education
In an effort to find solutions to South Africa’s tertiary funding crisis, the Heher Commission’s report recommended among others, an income-contigent loan scheme in which the banks would provide government-guaranteed loans. The banks would therefore not be at risk should the student default and the South African Revenue Services (SARS) would be the debt collector. The students would repay the loan once they had graduated and reached a certain income bracket. One of the contentious issues on which the Commission was severely criticised is the fact that the report didn’t stipulate the interest rates the banks would charge on the loans. The Commission said it relied on the “goodwill of the banks”. The Commission was naive enough to think there’s such a thing as goodwill among those whose sole motive is to make profit.
Given the history of student education debt, it makes very little sense to suggest including financial institutions as part of the solution for free education is reform. This proposal would have seen the banks making money off the poor again but this time with guarantees from government. It would have effectively meant privatising education for the poor through the back-door.
Thankfully government had the sense to reject a proposal which Morris Masutha called a “R150billion student loan scam proposed by the banks”. His company of researchers is among those which made presentations to the Heher Commission and the free education model is based partly – and not solely – on these presentations.
The media onslaught on the announcement that South Africa would also join the civilised world and offer fee free education for the poor and the working class is therefore not surprising. The money sharks have been left out of the deal.
By the time the students took to the streets to denounce the annual increases of university fees and later demand that #FeesMustFall in 2015, commercial media began spinning the narrative that says free education is unaffordable. The usual experts and analysts who represent commercial interests were given volumes of column space and airtime to explain why it couldn’t be done. Even former General Statistician Padi Lehohla was thrown into the fray when he attributed the inability of government to fund free education on the backlog caused by students who weren’t completing their studies and remained within the tertiary system. He said they were clogging up the system and some publications took full advantage of his statements and referred to these students as “lazy”. Intertwined in the narrative to discredit those calling for free education was the inability of students to repay which was incorrectly attributed to “refusal to pay” or “entitlement”. That some thugs hijacked the #FeesMustFall Movement and vandalised buildings played straight into the hands of commercial media. It was only with the heavy-handed response of security police on campuses that student protesters got some sympathy.
The months ahead are going to be a showdown between the media and vice chancellors of some universities on one hand, and the governmnet on the other. These vice chancellors, reluctant to open the doors of higher learning to the majority of students in this country, most of them from lower income households, have sided with the banks.
Government will have to work extra hard in communicating clear messages around how young people access free education, this in order to quell the confusion that is already under way. Commercial media have already taken the side of big corporations that this is unaffordable, and will not be looking to assist in clearing any confusion but will be watching for any and all the mistakes. The hostility is palpable but there’s very little that the detractors can do now. The train to empower the African child with education has long left the station.