Why South Africa's Universities Are in the Grip of a Class Struggle
Why South Africa's Universities Are in the Grip of a Class Struggle
By Rajendra Chetty and Christopher B. Knaus / theconversation.com

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.

Inequality abounds

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.

 


 Head of Research, faculty of Education, Cape Peninsula University of Technology

 Professor of Education, University of Washington

0.0 ·
0
What's Next
Trending Today
Ten Ways We Misunderstand Children
Jan Hunt · 16,220 views today · 1. We expect children to be able to do things before they are ready. We ask an infant to keep quiet. We ask a 2-year-old to sit still. We ask a 3-year-old to clean his room...
The Little Engine That Couldn't: How We're Preparing Ourselves and Our Children for Extinction
Daniel Quinn · 8,249 views today · In a recent semi-documentary film called Garbage, a toxic waste disposal engineer was asked how we can stop engulfing the world in our poisons. His answer was, "We'd have to...
18 Empowering Illustrations to Remind Everyone Who's Really in Charge of Women's Bodies
Julianne Ross · 3,300 views today · When Brazilian graphic designer Carol Rossetti began posting colorful illustrations of women and their stories to Facebook, she had no idea how popular they would...
When You Kill Ten Million Africans You Aren't Called 'Hitler'
Liam O'Ceallaigh · 1,218 views today · Take a look at this picture. Do you know who it is? Most people haven’t heard of him. But you should have. When you see his face or hear his name you should get as sick in...
Gabor Maté: Why Our Culture Makes So Many Of Us Unhappy
3 min · 979 views today · Dr. Gabor Maté explains why it is that our culture makes so many of us unhappy, unkind to one another, miserable, alienated from ourselves, etc. Watch the full interview in Part 2.
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 942 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 922 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 897 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
Beyond Civilization: Humanity's Next Great Adventure
Daniel Quinn · 889 views today · PART ONE A fable to start with Once upon a time life evolved on a certain planet, bringing forth many different social organizations—packs, pods, flocks, troops, herds, and...
Bitter Lake (2015)
136 min · 689 views today · Adam Curtis: Politicians used to have the confidence to tell us stories that made sense of the chaos of world events. But now there are no big stories and politicians react...
It Didn't Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are
Mark Wolynn · 652 views today · The past is never dead. It’s not even past. — William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min · 605 views today · If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th...
You Should Get Naked More Often. It's Good for You.
Joni Sweet · 583 views today · When Nelly encouraged overheated people worldwide to get naked in 2002, he was unknowingly advocating much more than just a sexy, sweaty dance party. Sunbathing, sleeping...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 446 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
90 Inspiring and Visionary Films That Will Change How You See the World in Profound Ways
Tim Hjersted · 445 views today · The world today is in crisis. Everybody knows that. But what is driving this crisis? It's a story, a story that is destroying the world. It's a story about our relationship to...
Lawns Are for Suckers. Plant a Garden - for the Climate!
Nathanael Johnson · 413 views today · Ripping out your lawn and planting kale and peppers won’t just lead to great stir-fry — a new study finds it could make major contributions to fighting climate change...
A New Story for Humanity (2016)
102 min · 404 views today · Inspired by the New Story Summit at the Findhorn Foundation: a sold-out multicultural, multigenerational inquiry into a new story for humanity, attended by change makers and...
Masculinity Is Killing Men: The Roots of Men and Trauma
Kali Holloway · 357 views today · We begin the damaging process of turning boys into men long before boyhood ends.
Why You Should Take Your Kids Out of School
Ben Hewitt · 312 views today · We don't need no education. At least not of the traditional, compulsory, watch-the-clock-until-the-bell-rings kind. As a growing movement of unschoolers believe, a steady diet...
Why People's Opinions of You Aren't Real
4 min · 291 views today · "You are what you love and not what loves you." - From Charlie Kaufman's film "Adaptation"
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Why South Africa's Universities Are in the Grip of a Class Struggle