Unrest has exploded at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, as what began as a peaceful protest about rising tuition fees erupted into clashes between students and police. In television footage, students were shown throwing rocks and stones at police, before the police retaliated with tear-gas in a bid to dispel the protesters.
At the beginning of September the South African government announced a rise of up to 8% in 2017 tuition fees for university students – well above the inflation rate. This decision to push fees higher would drive many of the nation’s more impoverished (generally black) students, already burdened by debt, into additional debt that they simply could not afford. Anecdotal evidence shows many students would not be able to continue with their studies. This is not the first demonstration over the cost of university education in the country: the battle has been ongoing. The high cost of education in South Africa is prohibitive for many students (particularly many black students), meaning that regardless of their academic achievements, they are unable to achieve further education. What’s more, many middle class students (often referred to as the ‘missing middle’) find themselves in the difficult position of not being eligible for any grants or financial support to help them attend university, but unable to cover the prohibitively high costs independently. As a result, more and more people are finding they simply cannot afford to attend university than ever before, leaving them trapped at a social level that is unreflective of their potential. This highlights the enduring inequalities between black and white peoples in the country (which is the most industrialised in the continent) which have not dissipated, despite it being more than two decades since the end of white minority rule within the country. The social inequalities in South Africa continue to grow, and there seems to be no end point in sight where all peoples of the country will and can be treated equally. What on the surface began as a simple protest about tuition fees is, in reality, about so much more: it is about oppression, a lack of social mobility, and a desire for change. A heavy police presence remains at Johannesburg’s universities, as a result of the protests.
This time last year, protests about the rising costs of tuition fees lead president Zuma to freeze 2016 fees at 2015 rates: it is thought that this is what is driving the above-inflation increase in fees for 2017. But what does this mean for those individuals affected? Many of those protesting against the rising fees and the high cost of education in South Africa are academics, marching alongside their students. Racism, gender-based violence and oppressive working conditions for those academics working there, are all a dominant and enduring presence in South Africa’s universities.
What Benefit The ‘Talking Cure’?
Twenty years after South African apartheid in 1994, we are still dealing with a nation that is divided. The once-ruling minority still fill the majority of university places and the flames of this inequality continue to be fanned by the prohibitive costs preventing the most gifted black students, but without financial means, from accepting places and taking the benefits of education back to their communities. South Africa is very open about its problems, its corruptions, its endemic inequality. As a nation, it continues to talk about its troubled past.
The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up by the Government of National Unity to help deal with what happened under apartheid, providing those that were abused, oppressed, and otherwise affected with a place that they can open up and talk about their pain and their mistreatment. As psychologists we know that talking about our problems can be a hugely beneficial, cathartic experience that can help us to overcome negative things that have happened in a positive and productive way. The TRC is often used as an example of how governments whose predecessors have failed their peoples (or where civil war and unrest have dominated) can help the population to emotionally adjust and address the abuse and inequality that they had to deal with. However, despite its continued commitment to talk about its problems, and the continued shining beacon of the TRC, as a nation South Africa doesn’t seem to be learning from its past, or from the lessons being shared within the TRC.
Time for Social Change
Now is the time for change in South Africa, and liberation psychologists can help to drive that change. It is time for us to engage with blackness, with the concept of black femininity and black masculinity, in order to build healthy communities and finally put apartheid in the past. Many of South Africa’s academic institutions are still embedded in this past, and have not embraced the change that came after 1994. Now is the time to eradicate the colonial past from inside those institutions, to make Universities a safe learning environment for students of all creeds and colours, and to open up the wonderful possibilities of education to everyone.
This article was written bywho is based in North America. It benefited from comments by a South African colleague, but as ever we would welcome responses from those closer to the issues.