By Camilla Hyslop
Camilla graduated from the University of Cape Town in 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and Law. She is currently doing her postgraduate degree in Law with an interest in transformative constitutionalism and international law at the University of Cape Town (South Africa).
If you’ve seen any videos of South African university campuses in the last month or so, you would be forgiven for thinking that the videos were actually footage from the Apartheid riots of the 1980s. Stun grenades and rubber bullets are fired by police in full riot gear, as protesting students throw bricks and burn buses in response. The videos resemble strife akin to that during Apartheid, admittedly because the structure of the country still looks a lot like Apartheid - albeit with a Black government at the helm.
The economic and social structures of the country continue to reproduce the advantages given to the elite White minority at the expense of the rest of the country. The protests at universities across South Africa have been in response to the slow rate of change with regard to this. The spark for the protest, however, lies in the current fees crisis at the tertiary education level. Last year, increases in fees ranging up to thirteen percent led to protests across the country in an unprecedented student movement that eventually caused President Jacob Zuma to announce that no fee increases would be effected in 2016. The problem a year down the line is, of course, that universities need the money, government is reluctant to pay it, and so fees must once more be increased. As such, several universities across the country have been shut for the last month (September) as the protests rage.
The first, and most urgent, demand from student protestors has been for free decolonised Afrocentric tertiary education. The demand for decolonised education is an undeniable one, despite the problematic video showing a protestor demanding the scrapping of Science as a degree and instead introducing African Black Magic.
The fact that South African institutions are still heavily Westernised is frankly embarrassing, given that we are now living in 2016. An example to prove my point…I am studying law at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and one of my courses this year is “The Law of Contract.” Of the forty-seven prescribed articles for the course in the first semester, two were written by White women and the rest by White men. Hence, it would seem that there is a dearth of Black contract law academics in South Africa (the source for the course material). Yet, a quick search through the law journals (a task I cannot undertake given that the university libraries are closed, ironically) makes it clear that this is incorrect.
Furthermore, the majority of the course is based on Roman Dutch and English law principles with little to no engagement with African Customary Law principles. This seems bizarre in a country of just over 41 million Black Africans (as opposed to the broader term of Black which includes Indians and other people of Color). Why should the law import foreign principles to impose on African people?
The curricula of all university courses should be more focused on the African perspectives and solutions. Not only will this be more pertinent to the majority of the population, but it will also serve to make our universities more internationally competitive. The likes of the University of Cape Town and the University of Witwatersrand (two of the leading universities in South Africa) will always fail to compete with Oxbridge or the Ivy Leagues, as long as the former continue to focus on the Western model of education with incomparable funding or resources. An Afrocentric curriculum will mean that South African graduates will actually have something fresh to offer the international and domestic market.
However, while universities are attempting to take on the challenge of changing the curricula, it is clear that it will be a long road until this is achieved.
The second demand has been for free education. This has been focused on a means of securing accessible education to the poor in the country (thousands and thousands of people do not complete degrees due to financial exclusion), and also a way of ensuring that education is not commodified (as it is, for instance, in America). This is where my qualm arises.
The call for accessible education is hard to refute. However, protesters have been calling for free education for all students. This would mean that if free education were to be implemented in 2017, then my final year of university would be free.
But I do not believe I deserve this.
I am White. My parents are wealthy. I went to one of the best elementary and high schools in South Africa. I drive a Mini Cooper and live in the second most expensive suburb in the country. Not only is wealth a factor, but also my White privilege, which will ensure that my lifestyle and living situation will be perpetuated throughout my life. I have the necessary connections and head start to continue my run in the White elite. My parents can afford to send me to university, so why should they pay nothing? The current tertiary education system is under enormous pressure at present, and free education would require a massive injection of funding. It seems incomprehensible that important government funding should be used to benefit me, a member of the White elite, instead of its entire existence that the system serves to benefit.
Rather, I propose that a tiered fee system should be implemented. My parents can continue to pay the current (or even higher) fees. Less privileged families can receive free education given that my fees would be able to fund this, indirectly and in theory at least. Eventually, we could arrive at a point where education is free for all (and thus avoid the commodification of it).
But this is not yet possible with the financial state of the education system. Free education would serve as a perpetuation of White privilege and thus is untenable in this country.
The next few years will be a critical time in South Africa as these kinds of issues will continue to be addressed and the economic and social structure will begin to shift away from a protection of the White minority. It remains unclear whether I will finish the academic year this year, and earn my Law Degree as planned, in light of continuing protests. However, while my lectures have stopped, it has been clear that I have learned more about my privilege and role in this country through these protests than I have in my four years at the University of Cape Town. This is why Afrocentric education is imperative.
And so, a luta continua.
1. Aliya Chikte, Gcobani Jombile, Ihsaan Bassier et al ‘Why Neoclassical Arguments against Free Education are Bullshit’ available at https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B8t2tgFHF8tec3pSaXBlYy1jdVk/view accessed on 19 October 2016