Crispin Sonn: Inclusive education does not mean free education

The Fallism movement has certainly taken the country by storm and has inspired young and old, rich and poor, black and white alike. Whether it is #ZumaMustFall, #FeesMustFall, #RhodesMustFall, #ShaunMustFall or #ZuptaMustFall – everywhere there are calls to action.

In all these instances, it is noteworthy that the focus of attention has been the removal or destruction of something or someone. In the #ZumaMustFall campaign it remains focused on a person, and tragically, not a system.

The questions that remain begging are, should our scrutiny of the president not be complimented by our scrutiny of the system that allowed him to rise to power and exercise his authority the way he does, with clearly no political sanction in place within the ANC to counter him? The system of patronage that has created him and supports him must equally be the focus of our attention.

The second question it raises is, how do we fix the “system” and prevent the president from replacing himself with another person like him? How do we ensure that we are not in the same position again in the future?

So it is with the #FeesMustFall campaign. In an attempt to make a point and destroy a system that clearly does not work for many poor students and learners, they target fees and the colonial nature of education.

There is, in my mind, and I hope in the minds of all deep thinking and empathetic South Africans, the realisation that a more inclusive educational system is an imperative for a stable and sustainable South Africa. If good, capable people – irrespective of race, gender or social background – cannot get access to quality education in a country that is home to great personal and institutional wealth, then surely there is something wrong with the system.

There is also ample evidence to suggest that we have not gone far enough in dealing with the colonial features of our education system. A work like that of Chancellor Williams’s The Destruction of Black Civilization, first published in 1974 in Chicago, raises some stirring questions which many students still seek answers to.

The debate that has been raised in theological circles around the genealogical origins of Christ is an equally controversial debate that seems not to find a platform at leading universities. The centrality of Egypt and North Africa in the origins of modern mathematics equally remains at the heart of the anger of many African students and scholars who feel that our contribution to the modern world goes unrecognised and unaccredited.

So, as we berate students for the destruction of campuses and the violent actions that have come to characterise their protests, it is necessary for the discussion to be complete, to acknowledge the legitimacy of the case for a more inclusive version of history in our curriculum.

As a father of a final-year university student, as a former student activist, and someone who considers myself a progressive South African, I remain conflicted. I understand very deeply the anger students feel. I remember how I felt marching to the Bremner administration building at UCT and on De Waal Drive in the late 1980’s. I can identify with the disillusionment that students feel towards the older generation.

However, I do ask the question, what are we really fighting for? What is the system and society we hope to create? I have heard what students don’t want. It is, however, easy to react against the things that don’t work for you. It requires more thought and consideration to articulate what you do want in its place.

I believe that those who can pay, must pay for their children’s education, and those who have the aptitude and ability to make it into the system, but cannot afford it, must be afforded all the financial and emotional support to succeed within the system.

These are, however, gateway issues. Gateway issues which should lead into a new order, a new society, and a new dispensation.

Let us assume that the question of fees will be resolved in a manner that will be agreeable to students, university administrators and government, and we assume that there is sufficient will to create a new society and dispensation that will be inclusive and fundamentally different to the one we have today. What would the curricula that senates have to preside over look like? How will the curricula be informed?

What needs to happen to build a more inquiring and inclusive environment to understand what lies at the heart of black students’ frustration, and how do we create a society that is able to engage with each other in a constructive and progressive manner, without destroying the gains made by the struggle of others which preceded this generation. Amongst the gains are the obligation not only to change history but an equal obligation to tell the complete history.

As we acknowledge the legitimacy of some of the student demands, we should acknowledge that the students offer no vision for what it really looks like for them on the other side. Administrators have to administer the higher education system as it is, while at the same time engaging with students, parents, government, funders, business and civil society over what a new system could possibly look like. They have to redesign the ship while it is on the water and students have to go further by articulating what that ship may look like for them. This is what a progressive democratic society demands.

We require an educational system that can be more responsive to the needs of students and society, but one that occurs in a context where it can self-correct and evolve as the needs of society evolve.

What must rise is not a system characterised by free education for all. What must rise is a system of learning and education that is more inclusive in content and access. What must rise is a process where students, who by their definition as scholars, should be held equally accountable for thinking about and designing a system that may work better for society, and an administration that invites them to do so.

We are not innocent bystanders, we are profoundly affected by the product we get from the system. We are legitimate participants in this debate and as legitimate as the case for change may be, the vision is as unclear as the means to bring about change is unacceptable in a democratic society. What must rise is a clearer vision of a higher education system that works better for more.

4 thoughts on “Crispin Sonn: Inclusive education does not mean free education

  1. Great article, Mr Sonn!
    Sadly, it seems as if a solid platform for engagement has not been created to address student concerns, so rather than collectively co-creating our future, we shout at each other across social media platforms!
    Perhaps we all need to take a step back and reflect on the past year…and then start working together to create safe spaces for engagement around how we change the systems and practices that have led us to this undesirable place.
    Together we can shape a positive future, but as a divided nation we will squander a golden opportunity to be leaders of Africa.

  2. Excellent article; and very thought provoking too…

    I enjoyed the way you began to introduce your main point Mr Sonn; however I would have liked it if you had developed further the linkage between theft from the state by Zuma & his loyalists (criminal enterprise, co-opting ministers & the ANC/NEC); specifically how the funding that could have gone towards education in Gordhan’s October budget updates has been stolen through all the State Capture, SOE’s, tenders and simple theft?
    As you so perfectly state… SA must endeavor to close the door on the leaders to follow Zuma that this rent seeking and literal bribery by the President downwards through the ANC cadre/bureaucracy cannot replicate? Respectfully, Neil Schmidt (am American that loves SA)

  3. is the problem not with the Basic education system failing most public school pupils. we Marks are increased to provide learners a opportunity to attend university. Once there these learners face enormous (I assume) academic, social and economic challenges. Universities do a lot to try and support students academically but can only go so far. I do not think it is about money alone but a system that is broken from Grade R.
    Most businesses would love to provide Bursaries to top students, the problem is we cannot trust Matric results due to the manipulation of marks to win political points. This results in students that never expected to attend university suddenly gaining access to tertiary institutions. Being the pinnacle dream for many poor communities, having a child of the village at university, this place great pressure on the student. linked to the other demands many students fail, not because they do not have the ability but the situation is untenable for them…..

  4. The white paper for inclusive education has actually been in existence for a few years now. However, I’m not too sure it can be implemented before we have dealt with corruption. I don’t think there is enough money to support all the students who need it.

    While poverty is a barrier to learning, education is a bridge to a better live. This can be demonstrated by looking at the unemployment rate in South Africa. While unemployment is at 27.6% nationally, the unemployment rate of graduates is only about 6%. This means you have a very good chance of landing a good job if you graduate. Which means you should then have money.

    Would it then not be a good idea to dramatically change the criteria for student loans? If government cannot cover tuition costs, could they not at least play the role of guarantor for poor applicants of student loans? Even the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) requires a salary slip from an applicant’s parent or legal guardian. Where does this leave potential students who’s parents are both unemployed?

    If our government can act as a guarantor for such applicants, the FeesMustFall movement will probably disappear over-night. With only about 6% of graduates ending up unemployed, this solution will be much cheaper and the risk should be much lower for banks as well.

    This brings me to my second point. As illustrated above, none of our systems need to fall. All they need is to change.

    In science we always have thesis first, then antithesis, followed by synthesis. However, the concept of synthesis is and has been prevalent in life since the beginning of time, and was perhaps best explained by Hegel.

    Destroying the systems we have now would in fact only prolong the process, since synthesis requires both the old and the new. Therefore, instead of destroying every system we perceive as a barrier, we actually need to rise towards it and blend in. Then we can change it from inside. This will make our systems stronger.

    Otherwise, I completely agree with you.

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