Each year, hundreds of thousands of students enrol to study at South Africa’s universities. Of the 60% of black African students who survive the first year, only 15% will ultimately graduate. This is hardly surprising: these failed students come from an oppressive, ineffective public school system. Most of their classmates never make it into higher education and those who do come poorly prepared to the killing fields.
The post-apartheid educational system is not founded on what the poor and marginalised need. Instead, as research shows, it is racial and class-based. This notion of class has great significance in a post-apartheid - but not post-racial - South Africa, not only in education but in all realms. Class, here, refers to the norms and experiences that come from living within a particular economic and financial resource base.
Access to basic shelter, adequate food, clothing and decent schooling all empower or disadvantage particular communities. There have been attempts to provide redress to previously disadvantaged South African communities, such as social grants, the provision of low cost housing and the introduction of “no fee” schools. But these have proved insufficient to remedy their continued economic exclusion.
This, then, is the unchanging element of pre and post-1994 South Africa: black youths’ life chances remain significantly lower than those of whites. What role can academics and universities play in changing this? And might they finally be spurred into action by the student protests that marked 2015 - protests which, we would argue, are a class struggle.
Education is unequal at all levels in South Africa. There is deepening racial segregation at schools and universities. Higher education is increasingly racially stratified, and it is particularly apparent in the concentration of black and coloured students at historically disadvantaged universities. Most white students attend the previously advantaged universities, like the English liberal Universities of Cape Town and the Witwatersrand, or more conservative Afrikaans institutions like the Universities of Stellenbosch and Pretoria.
Those universities catered almost exclusively to the white minority until 1994. They occupy top positions in local and international research rankings. That stems from their obtaining the lion’s share of research funding from statutory bodies such as the National Research Foundation.
They also charge much higher fees than the universities that were built exclusively for blacks during the apartheid era. This maintains the class structure of apartheid society. It is logical that universities which charge higher fees are able to provide a higher quality of education to middle class students.
But the status quo has been disrupted. In 2015 something shifted inexorably at South African universities. Students protested against institutions’ language policies, high fees, structural inequalities and colonial symbols.
It was poor and working-class youth who drove the protests - a clear indication that it is a class struggle. This is further emphasised by the fact that most students who protest, whether during 2015 or on other occasions, are black. Race and class lie at the heart of opposition to South Africa’s existing, exclusive university system.
Let’s talk about class
But racism and class are largely excluded from any understanding of the current youth resistance in higher education. This is possibly because the education system has distributed relatively petty advantages within the working class through limited scholarships and loans. It also allows for entry into elite, predominantly white institutions based on academic achievement. This serves to disorganise the entire working class and allows the capitalist democracy to more effectively exploit the majority of poor youth.
Modern forms of class prejudice are invisible even to the perpetrators, who remain unconvinced of the class struggle of black youth. They dismiss it as unruly behaviour and a lack of respect for the new “progressive” order governing universities. Protesters are berated for not understanding universities’ financial pressures; they are viewed as being insensitive to their peers who just want to get on with their education without disruptions.
Where are academics in all of this? Sadly, we believe that the voice of thinkers in the academe has been discouraged and repressed. Many of the activists among us have been co-opted onto the university bureaucracy and unashamedly drive a neo-liberal agenda of colourblindness.
Our silence has given consent to the deepening crisis of inequality. Once again, it’s the youth that had the courage to resist the system, just as they did during the Soweto uprising in 1976. They do so at great personal risk. But students should fear less the angry policemen with their rubber bullets than the racist academe that covertly discriminates against the poor.
The current black student resistance over fees, housing and limited intake clearly shows that higher education’s transformation agenda needs serious consideration. The professoriate, for instance, remains largely white and male with more gestures at window dressing than inclusion. Racism against black students and staff is prevalent.
It is also evident that in spite of profound policy changes in higher education, a “new” racial structure is operating. This accounts for the persistence of racial inequality and must be challenged. Academics are well placed to lead the charge.
Academics have a responsibility
Universities and academics should be grateful for these protests, and to the students who took up the cudgels for change. The protests should be viewed as a positive initiative. They represent a chance for the academe to generate ideas that will address the racial and class divide in South Africa rather than entrenching it. Academics cannot abdicate their responsibility towards social change any longer.