Melo Magolego
Melo Magolego

#FeesMustFall and its inherent elitism

In US politics it is often said that when you are young, if your politics is not progressive then you have no heart. However when you are old, if your politics is not conservative then you have no brain. In SA we have conservative voices that are quick to spell out inflation, budgets, costs and prudential financial stewardship when students cry #FeesMustFall. Unfortunately these conservative voices approach the #FeesMustFall issue from a narrow and technocratic perspective.

Economics is primarily the politics of allocating funds such that spending is within the constraints of available resources. Economics is not primarily the allocation of available resources given political constraints. For example, whether we prioritise healthcare or social grants that is primarily a political decision. What #FeesMustFall is doing is questioning the allocation of funds in the fiscus. It is with this in mind, that we can see the call for #FeesMustFall is not a technocratic one but a thoroughly political one.

Wits university students occupy Senate House October 20, 2015. Photo: M&G

Wits university students occupy Senate House October 20, 2015. Photo: M&G

Much like all other political activism, the inherently political character of #FeesMustFall necessarily implies a need for political legitimacy in order to have the state consider these claims legitimate. It is through this quest for legitimacy that we see the elitism of #FeesMustFall and what it means for the body politic of SA going forward.

The “Statistics on Post-School Education and Training in SA: 2011” published by the department of higher education in 2013 says there are about half a million contact university students in SA — of which about 80% are black. This 80% is much higher than the 63.4% quoted in the “General Household Survey, 2014” by StatsSA, for the same statistic. Whichever percentage you believe, any optimism at the high figures is quickly snuffled when you read on and the “Household Survey” says of 18 to 29 year old blacks only 3.4% are involved in schooling versus that of 23.3% for whites.

Participation of 3.4% is very low. This drives home my first gripe at why I feel #FeesMustFall is an elitist pursuit. In South Africa there is this myth that university is some form of egalitarian pursuit and not the actual elitist pursuit it actually is. Where are the 96.6%? Who is tweeting about them? In the wake of apartheid trauma we have come to believe that university is the answer to our quest for dignity and have made it the sole pinnacle of education. In reality, university in constitutional SA has never been about creating a university educated society but rather about creating a more egalitarian elite within society. So we must embrace that this #FeesMustFall for universities ultimately is an elitist call whose demands must be balanced against the 96.6%.

Secondly, what we are seeing with #FeesMustFall is the nascent offshoots of the formation of middle-income people as a legitimate political class in SA. For much of our post-democratic SA life, public discourse has centred on the “poor of the poorest”, the “grassroots” and the “abject masses” as being the de facto legitimate public-self which could make legitimate public claims on the state. What this #FeesMustFall is saying is that there is another legitimate public-self which is the elite middle-income group. This along with the e-toll movement represents a rupture in SA politics because for the first time middle-income elite feel justified in claiming equal citizenship in making claims on the state. They feel a legitimacy which need not hide in fear of being accused of crowding out the “poor of the poorest”. I contend these students will form the bedrock of middle-income consciousness and have ramifications on political parties going forward.

Thirdly, #FeesMustFall is challenging the racial elitism perpetuated by the neo-liberal user-pay principle, which has been a staple of governance in SA since the Growth, Employment and Redistribution policy. The socio-economic legacy of apartheid means that blacks on average are far poorer than whites. So any access to services mediated through fees, will on average prejudice blacks. The SA Treasury eschews broad-based taxation in favour of user-pay because it believes user-pay disciplines both users and state parastatals.

They contend the user is more prudent in their consumption of services and so too the parastatal because it does not have guaranteed taxation income. However, education is capital expenditure in human resources much like capital expenditure for infrastructure is. In other words, paying for education is an investment and not an operational expense. If Treasury is so interested in discipline, then co-payment schemes (think medical aid) with the state carrying most of the burden could achieve the same effect.

Lastly, historically black universities have been crying about fees for the longest time now. It would seem there is a hierarchy of legitimacy that when some universities raise the issue it is taken more seriously than when others do. The entrenchment of a hierarchy of legitimacy much as it speaks to the rise of the middle-income elite, threatens to create second-class citizens whose cries need to be mediated by others – those wielding hashtags.

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