By Sandile Memela

THE history of the student upheavals teaches us clearly that perhaps a struggle waged by students does not lead to total liberation, whatever that is.

Too many say 1976 marked a turning point where the student and youth of this country were in the forefront of the struggle to end oppression and exploitation in South Africa.

This was repeated in 1985 when, again, students and youth pushed hard against poor education, injustice and inequality. But a critical examination of the gains, if any, soon reveals loss of focus, lack of strategy and political confusion with neither clear and well-defined objectives of the desires and aspirations.

There seems to be something fleeting and shallow about student and youth power that lacks a coherent and consistent political strategy. Instead, the end results are not what student fought for, that is, trained and effective teachers, state of the art learning facilities and unconditional access to good education, let alone economic equality and social justice.

Perhaps it needs to be said that the vanguard of the struggle is not the students but their parents who are the workers. Student power, with all its energy and enthusiasm, is riddled with inherent faults that will ultimately see young people ultimately assimilated into the economy.

Those of us who were participants in the deep rumbles of 1976 have, at the end, become part of the very system we fought against. Exactly a year after 16 June 1976, a semblance of normality returned to schools and thus small groups started to graduate from high school.

By 1980 the fortunate few joined other students with ambitions to use education as a tool to escape poverty. Coming mostly from poor working class backgrounds, our parents were the domestic helpers, gardeners, messengers, cleaners and other menial workers. They never owned cars to drive us to university campuses or witness as we settled comfortably into residences at Bush colleges like Fort Hare, Turfloop and Ongoye. The few parents who could afford it only accompanied us to the train station to bid us farewell in our ambitions to escape our condemned backgrounds of poverty and hopelessness.

Looking back, it would seem that our oppressed and exploited parents knew that only education would free us from the hell on earth of hopeless township life. Very few of my mates, colleagues and friends came from privileged backgrounds. There would be an odd one or two whose parents were school teachers, principals or nurses but the rest of our parents were underpaid workers. Many of them worked up to 18-hours a day which saw them leave home at 4am only to return around 9pm due to transport problems, long working hours and the distances they had to travel.

Ironically, these black mothers and fathers were our heroes who did what they had to do to keep us well fed with left-overs from their employers and well clothed with shabby garb from second hand shops.

It was only when we graduated from high schools that we realised that we were poor, condemned and had little hope in life – except when we went to school.

A few years earlier, which was in 1976, a growing number had been radicalised by this experience and became freedom fighters that went into exile, jail and died in the face of apartheid repression. But I suppose those of us who got bursaries and sponsorship to go to universities represented both a betrayal and a fulfilment of African people’s dreams for freedom.

The primary aim of education is to train and prepare you for a working life that will promote and perpetuate the economic system with its injustice and inequality. We were willing to lift ourselves up by our bootstraps and whether we knew it or not then, this was going to alienate us from what we came to know as ‘our people’ and disconnect us from our communities.

Usually, progress for educated blacks is a giant leap that takes them away from their traditions, languages, communities, families and other ties that bind them to their communities and forces them to adopt new ways that co-opt them.

The university graduates become the movers and shakers quick to integrate corporate culture in the name of individual self-determination. This is always rationalised as the result of hard work, self-discipline, focus and, ultimately, success and achievement.

It should be said that in 1976, for instance, we already understood that getting a university education would give access to becoming part of the black middle class. We understood that the middle class was created to be a buffer zone between the black poor and the exploitative white-controlled economic system.

In the pursuit of our student ambitions and dreams, many of us have found ourselves in a strange situation where we have become part of what is derogatively called the oppressor class. In short, we have become part of the history and system that we not only fought against but condemned some of our mates to poverty and hopelessness.

We were products of oppression and exploitation, of course, but as we progressed and matured through finishing our university education, we escaped into the freedom that is guaranteed by education and self-determination. We did not have any extra qualities or abilities that our peers and contemporaries lacked except that we understood and were willing to listen to our parents and teachers.

Even today as the #FeesMustFall campaign falters, it is the voice of the parents that tells students to return to class. Yes, the hope is that education will not only liberate students from material need but provide jobs, meaning, purpose, relative comfort and security.

To speak truthfully about the link between this history and liberation, some of us are fortunate to occupy middle-management positions in government, the corporate world and NGOs. No doubt the student struggles have made a significant contribution to opening up opportunities but the achievements are still a travesty of what could have been achieved. Many are trapped in unemployment, poverty, despair and hopelessness.

The return to normal school always, inevitably, turns students and youth into cannon fodder for the economic system. Thus there will always be a sense of betrayal that threatens to overwhelm students who will have made it because of the untransformed economic system and corporate culture.

The gap between the rich and the poor, the educated and illiterate – especially in the African community – is ever growing bigger. Essentially, student struggles will always NOT result in the transformation that the youth wish to see.

Sandile Memela is a writer, cultural critic and public servant. He writes in his personal capacity.

More reading on the colonial education system: A Colonial Administrator At A Time Zimbabwe Needs A Decolonizing Change Agent

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