Opinion

OPINION: Reflections on Minister Mkhize’s UCT visit

Nkosikhulule Xhawulengweni Nyembezi

When Minister Hlengiwe Mkhize came to UCT on February 22 to talk about the implementation of the recently announced government policy on free education, we in the audience were ready for a dialogue. Alas, there was none! Not between her and students, and not even between her and Nomi Kondlo, advertised as the responded.

How disappointing! More so because in the audience were also students of different political persuasions from other institutions of higher learning in the province.

This missed opportunity was yet another reminder to all that of all the links in the democratic delegation chain, the first link (from voters to legislators) may be fraught with the greatest potential for agency losses when elected representatives tend to tell citizens what to do, instead of also listening to the views of the people as part of enriching their electoral mandate in-between elections.

In a fledging South African democracy, the views of citizens – the ultimate principals in a representative and participatory democracy – must never be overlooked by leaders in government under the pretext that citizens lack the information and resources, compared to their leaders, to make informed decisions on how best to implement public policy and programmes, and to subsequently ensure that they do the public’s bidding for resource allocation.

Messing up with this democratic delegation chain often results into the kind of disappointment that the meeting with the minister ended up being regarded as by some, including myself, who had expected a robust engagement. Because we are all in this together in this “Year of Nelson Mandela and Albertina Sisulu,” I continue to reflect on the event by teasing some issues that require our collective action.

What most in the audience were looking forward to was coming out of the meeting with a vision of what students who are beneficiary of this policy should look like, to understand the distinguishing features that should make them stand out as citizens who have arrived at a point where fruits of this phase of South African liberation struggle can be finally tasted.

Nevertheless, all is not lost because the conversation continued after the minister’s departure, and will continue in months and years to come. It will continue in both formal and informal spaces. And it will be captivating.

The first part of the conversation reflects on the meeting with the minister. Awkwardly, some ANC leaders in government are grappling with listening to the voices and affirming the views of ordinary members, as well as those of ordinary South Africans. They completely overlook the fact that today’s generation of student leaders possesses a wealth of progressive ideas and a determination to be involved in the implementation of the policy on free education, as a visible force that bravely propelled the fight for free education in the recent past.

There is strong evidence showing that in this struggle students are ahead of many others in different sectors of our society, in a way that created an expectation that the minister would have said less and, instead, listened more. To do so would have placed her in a better position going forward to mediate various challenges that stand on the way of realising free education. This in the context of Stats SA 2016 Community Survey (and other related surveys results released since) reporting a shift in what political parties and communities see as priorities for the country in comparison with how priorities have been ranked in previous years.

For example, the results of the 2016 Community Survey are reported in the top three out of 20 priorities of citizens as being, first, access to water; second, employment creation; and third, reducing the cost of electricity. Education or building human resources features as priority number 15.

What makes this even more noticeable is that election manifestos launched by various political parties ahead of the 2016 municipal elections and the corresponding election campaigns resonated very much with the ordering of these priorities. This was so even though the campaign environment had been affected by the student struggles for free tertiary education and decolonisation institutions of higher learning.

Because of the changing order of priorities, and ahead of the 2019 national and provincial elections, South Africa needs more than ever decisive leadership in the form of a collective of members of the executive in cabinet and all relevant stakeholders in order to ensure that limited resources are spent optimally in a balanced manner for the overall benefit of the country and its citizens. This leadership must also be demonstrated in this year’s introduction of free education, and must endure irrespective of how the imminent cabinet reshuffle unfolds.

Given the present uncertainty over the pace of various stages of political transition referred to by President Ramaphosa in the SONA, the leadership in government will do well by mediating the policy and fiscal space to ensure that advocacy for access to higher education becomes a matter for society as a whole, and is not confined to higher education students alone, just as it was a matter for the high school students in the 1976 Soweto uprising over forty years ago.

Many challenges lie ahead. For example, there is a growing concerns over a number of incidents in previous years in which unscrupulous landlords take all sorts of advantages of students staying in private accommodation. There are also concerns over rigid administrative systems at institutions of higher learning that force students to use meal vouchers to buy “rotten” groceries only from certain stores. What about other predatory practices such as those used by loan sharks and burial societies to milk beneficiaries of social grants? What steps will the government take to put a stop to this form of abuse?

This points to the need for a framework that is meant to protect the rights of students. Such a framework could be along the same lines as found in the Social Assistance Act, which clearly makes it an offence for anyone to “obstruct delivery of social assistance and food parcels in pension pay-points”.

Nkosikhulule Xhawulengweni Nyembezi is a human rights activist and a member of UCT community.

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