The Beginnings of Change

This is part two following my blog post about the #NationalShutDown, the protests that are occurring right at this very moment across the nation of South Africa.  I actually don’t know what to call this moment of history…

As a foreigner, my understanding is very limited because the problems that the people are trying to address today are deeply rooted in South African history: apartheid and racial discrimination.  People here feel betrayed because the rhetoric of the government just doesn’t match what is delivered.  Then, if you add the aggression and slander protestors face–the rubber bullets, the tear gas, the stun guns, the false claims of the violence of their protests (though there are a few “naughty” protestors that do ruin it for everyone else…), and the accusations of treason–it is safe to say that the people are angry and no longer believe in the institutions that are meant to support them.

Increasing fees for higher education is a one issue among the countless grievances that South Africans face.  Additionally, when workers are paid poorly or don’t receive benefits it perpetuates the inability for students to obtain education and live healthy lives.  On top of that, this phenomenon, though seemingly unintentional (we can’t point to a law that would say it is intentional), is really only experienced by black and coloured people.

This week is the second week of final exams, and no one is really in the right mindset to write their exams (speaking from the perspective of my friends).

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As I have said before, life has just been weird.

So, there is some progress that has occurred in the past few weeks, and taken from the UCT website:

  • There will be a 0% increase in fees for academic tuition and housing for all students from the African continent at UCT in 2016.
  • On 28 October 2015, UCT and NEHAWU signed an agreement that the university will insource the six outsourced services. NEHAWU released this statement celebrating the decision.

These are two big feats. Truly.

But.

It.

Is.

Not.

Enough.

Especially when 0% increase doesn’t mean that fees have decreased (#feesmustfall, not #feesmuststaythesame).  Especially when it is only for the 2016 academic year.  Especially since President Zuma says that “free education is possible“.  Especially since free university education for the poor has been a sentiment since 2012.  What about making education attainable across the board?

This progress, though progress, is not enough.

Especially since workers do not fully understand what “insourcing” means for them.  Especially since approximately 17% of income goes towards medical aid and employee benefits that might not be used anyway (I think workers need disposable income to provide for their families).  Especially since NEHAWU, a union that is supposed to represent the workers, did not adequately advocate for workers, and this led to more marching.  Especially since this “insourcing agreement” is only happening at UCT at the moment (but I could be wrong…).  What about the rest of the nation?

This was supposed to be a nationwide movement to create a system that would support students wanting to obtain higher education and would allow workers to sustain a healthy standard of living and lift them out of poverty, working towards better futures.

But, from what I can see, it is a big appeasement strategy by the institutions of higher learning, trying to appease certain groups to diminish the momentum.  Where is the government?  From what I understand, student fees have risen and universities rely on outsourced workers because government subsidies have decreased over time.  Where is the investment in the people?

So, when the government agreed to a 0% in tuition and fees, it was meant to appease the students.  If the students are happy, they may not feel the need to protest anymore.

But, when students decided to stand in solidarity with the workers, the university had to switch gears.  This is why they readily agreed to insource workers.  And if the workers are happy, maybe they won’t protest anymore.

And.

It worked.

Workers returned to their positions and UCT scheduled exams.  Everything ran “business as usual”.  For a few days.

When the workers at UCT realized that their concerns were not being met by the NEHAWUxUCT agreement, they marched again.  But, this time, the university is not letting exams get postponed again.  The momentum of the protests has died down, and people aren’t as united as they were a few weeks ago anymore.  Yes, a bus was burned last week and a small group of students disrupted an exam on Monday, but it’s not the same.  Students want to take their exams because living day by day has been taking a psychological toll.

So, what’s next?

I don’t know.  Exams are the only thing that workers have as leverage to get the university to hear them.  So much is at stake when so many students count on exams for jobs or graduation (which has been postponed from December 2015 to June 2016) or getting into programs.  So, it was a good strategy.  But, not much progress has been made in the name of the workers or the students.

The opportunity cost of not taking exams is seemingly higher than continuing on with the protests (especially since there were gains?).  But, is this just the perception?  How could it be the reality?

This is added on to the ability for students to defer their exams until later (mostly January), so students are physically leaving.  UCT, in my opinion, is not handling the situation well because it is too focused on getting through exams (which is expected to run from 10 November – 27 November), but there are more pressing issues.  UCT needs to address the concerns of students and workers (and cut the corruption).  It is quite possible that UCT has won the battle, but the war is far from over.

In my opinion, there is always this possibility that workers and students will unite again before exams are over, but since things have been eerily quiet these days, I am not too sure anymore.  Maybe they’ll regroup in January when students return to write their deferred exams.

Things are not done here.  The government and the institutions cannot simply ignore that and believe that students and workers are simply going to continue as they are.  The status quo needs to be changed to support the people.

Over and out.

 

PS. Part 3?

 

Update (18 November 2015): Maybe I spoke too soon about the movement dying down. I heard singing outside my window today, songs of struggle. Maybe the feelings have been renewed?

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