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The Confusion of Transition

The Confusion of Transition

The past week’s October Student Revolt (it is better to be precise, there may be future editions) is intriguing for its many windows on multi-faceted problems, whose agendas have suddenly been greatly accelerated.

What can we learn from these events and possibly project from them?

The central theme was financial (in too many instances totally inadequate student parent means, overwhelming financial demands, accumulating hardship, leading either in many cases to premature dropping out from university or buildup of enormous debts).

The demands were simple: no fee increases next year, which for some translated into free higher education “because it is our right” in terms of the Constitution or any other historic understanding.

There were other issues as well, heavily race or at least culture based. That leading institutions are traditionally White, that they are slow in appointing Black teaching staff and absorbing Black students, and that Blacks (& Browns, too) aren't culturally welcome, at best insensitively “accommodated” (a red rag to a raging bull, yet apparently not always realised).

At Afrikaans Universities language was added to the potpourri of objections, declaring translation services inadequate (someone may be doing translation in class, but what happens when you exit the building – translators don't follow you into the street).

In yet other instances at English Universities, some of these sentiments go yet further, declaring not only a preference for Black students & staff, but not really wanting to learn western concepts & preferring instead exclusive African subject contents.

All this clearly goes well beyond money. And if many White students, especially poor ones or from squeezed middle class backgrounds (a reality apparently not fully realised or cared about by too many people) have great sympathy for the money angle, too, and don't like heavy-handed interference by security or police either, the cultural barbs are mainly directed at them.

The deeper issue then is transformation, from a colonial, imperialistic, hegemon cultural domination, preferment & separation, favouring well-off Whites to the disadvantage of others, towards a new dispensation.

Before we get to what that new dispensation could look like, perhaps a quick word about the money. It isn't necessarily in the first instance about poverty-pleading. It is about access to funding.

In my time, a generation ago, there were only a few students whose parents could pay the (then) fees. Many White students were from backgrounds where they had to rely on bursaries, specifically public sector (Transnet, Eskom, government) but also large private companies looking for future skilled professional employees. Those qualifying on merit could study engineering, science, commerce & teaching especially, committing to work for a few years with the party providing the bursary (which were then forgiven, usually after four years of employment – a tax deductible expense as “training” and thus really carried by taxpayers).

The real issue, then and now, was whether a growing student body could be accommodated in a rapidly expanding economy and in the public sector serving that economy.

That was the case then (with growth of 5% in the 1960s and still 3% in the 1970s). Thereafter this ceased to be the case, the 1980s averaging barely 1% growth, the late 1990s & early 2000s returning to just short of 3% growth, then a short burst of euphoric 5% growth again to 2007, after which the ruling party’s cadres effectively switched off the lights (back to 1%).

A rapidly growing economy doubles national income every decade, a very slow-growing economy may do it only once every three generations. Take your pick.

And South Africa, its elites & people did choose, if not painlessly. They choose for a lost generation in the 1970s & 1980s (inevitably, because Whites didn't want to negotiate), and in democracy they choose for policies that were high on political & cultural content but growth-poor.

With it came stagnation, in income & job growth. Many parents that could have progressed therefore didn't escape their poverty traps, as a “class” experience entirely due to the extremely poor policy choices of a generation; the economy didn't grow fast enough to create future jobs, denying a large majority of every new age cohort access to decent jobs & a comfortable future life.

When, therefore, it comes today to solutions, the humane inclination is to demand more resources for deserving students (at least for the one-third that will actually be able to finish their studies through hard work & innate ability). Automatically one looks towards the State for this, really meaning taxpayers.

Which raises another question: do you want to harvest a tax revolt next, having already tasted the recoil against etolling?

No? Some people apparently couldn't care less, as the etolling saga should have taught us by now.

But is there any other option?

Of course there is. And government is still key, though in a different context. Demand a return to 5%-6% growth rates, doubling the national income nearly every decade, and expanding formal jobs by 3%-4% annually, steadily outpacing labour force growth of 1% and greatly reducing poverty, unemployment, discouragement & despair within a generation.

That would create the resources as well as the “employer pull” to fund higher education and productively absorb its growing number of graduates.

Not possible? Of course it is possible, provided you do the right things, such as having competent Ministers, public service-minded rather than selfish, and them appointing in turn staff meritocratically selected – As Kennedy’s crowd asked famously & triumphantly in the early 1960s “why not the best?”. Indeed, why not? We are starting to have a surplus of good people not well deployed, because fat cats & friends block the arteries, as much in a physical as mental sense.

Is that what you want for another generation? If so, good luck to your life’s chances and that of your offspring, for which reason the well-off are now matter-of-factly sending their offspring overseas to be educated, irrespective of race, gender, etc. One may expect quite an acceleration in that exodus after the summer break. They will mostly not be back, deepening our brain drain, something our brainer ministers will probably not realise, or really mind. More for them.

As to the cultural welcoming, it is really a matter of ownership, isn't it? When I arrived at Stellenbosch as a fresh-faced youngster I wasn't endlessly amazed that nobody wanted to speak to me in Dutch. Instead, they expected me to learn their charming dialect. And when I got to UCT later on, I can imagine the cultural-superior guffaws behind closed doors as to the idea that they should not only address me in Dutch, but appreciate my cultural background and its delightful quirkiness as a matter of course. Just imagine that for a moment, if you can.

I had already earlier discovered at a dual-medium school, to my cost, that I was expected to learn the local lingoes or sink without a trace. Clearly, ownership wasn't one of my strong suits. Never mind Jan Van Riebeeck.

One senses a somewhat different interpretation today. There is presumption of ownership, indeed on all sides. Instead of sharing a common home and getting on with the important thing (getting an education, moving on).

The pragmatists want to compromise, implying sharing, and being pragmatic (about best education and such). That probably means one language (English), best teachers, global curricula. Want to know what that means? Look around the world, not narrowly at Africa.

What remains?

Increasingly ruffled feathers, deep anger surfacing, implacableness, hardening of arteries & attitudes, stiff-backed, not giving an inch, thereby apparently losing each other in the process. How to put that genie back to work?

Professional politicians should do something they are not known for: take full responsibility for the comprehensive mess they have landed us in. Short of that, are there others that may lead us to a better outcome, from within the ruling party, or in need outside of it?

Populists are using this platform & bandwagon to woe the disenchanted, but their promises will lead to even greater sacrifices by the next generation. We need better leadership, better policy choices, proven performance. Not more or newer circus acts.

Our young (those younger than 50 years of age) do not know what a successful economy looks or feels like, hopefully not mistaking the speculative credit-binging of 2004-2007 for the real McCoy. They have so far only known severe underperformance and gross circus acts.

This economy hasn't truly been performance tested EVER in its mature phase (counting the past 100 years), because it was repressed throughout by the dullest policy mixes imaginable, preoccupied with separateness & hegemony by one or other group. There were the English. Then the Afrikaners. After which the Blacks, with a rich sprinkling of Indians and Browns, too.

I suppose it is our collective genes talking, and such diversity bringing a rich creativity, too. But the separating out comes at the expense of collective focus. In an intensely competitive world, only focus will get you there in the end.

None of this has been unknown. Yet the inclination of many “leaders” is to grab for someone else’s pocketbook first, and demand more resources for some pet project. And beyond our deserving higher education their loom yet more deeply deserving agendas.

Instead, it is our mode of government that should come under discussion first. Doing the right things will yield resources, and pressures to transform in the name of efficiency, in whose terms little will turn out to be holy.

But that focus isn't there yet. Instead, this bewildering confusion of baying populists, anarchists, well-meaning idealists, and even practical managers trying to guide the multitude in a common-sense way, while the inclination on every side is mostly to think narrow & shoot from the hip.

This country has enough resources & capabilities to give South Korea a run for its money in the developmental stakes. But it should show some discipline & focus, rather than trying to be Braveheart & simply storm into spear pointed brick walls.

Society is clearly watching very carefully, even if only colour-coded television. Perhaps it prefers to first feel the touch of the populist whip before coming to any different insights? In which case it may turn out to be a longish journey, as populists like to dig in and authoritarians are loathe to give up power (read up on Bertrand Russell in last week’s Africa Brief analysis).

Meanwhile, heads up. The spring heat in the interior is intense, the rains late. A serious drought this summer could more than halve the maize harvest once again (to 4mt?), in which case explosive food price increases next year. That could mobilise a lot more than just a few thousand angry, social-media linked, students.

And our populists will be there to show them the way. Talk about Fat & Fire. We need to come to our senses, fast.

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