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South Africa: A Communist in the Ministry of Higher Education: The ultimate solution?

category southern africa | education | non-anarchist press author Monday June 01, 2009 18:46author by Percy Ngonyama Report this post to the editors

The recent establishment of the Ministry of Higher Education; and the subsequent appointment of Communist Party General-Secretary, Blade Nzimande, as its head, in some circles, is viewed as proof that the Jacob Zuma administration is serious about delivering on its election promises relating to higher education. ANC aligned student and youth formations, under the banner of the 'Progressive Youth Alliance' (PYA) who, in recent times, have been at the forefront of strikes at many tertiary institutions, believe that Nzimande is almost a 'panacea' to the serious problems facing the sector, ranging from exclusions, shortages of accommodation, shortages of human and material resources conducive to learning and teaching.

It will be wise to locate the latest developments within the ongoing debate on what has been referred to, by, inter alia, student activists and education experts, as a 'crisis' in the higher education system. Not to sound pessimistic, however, assuming that ,merely, as a result of the changes, the end to the unsavoury status quo is nigh is too simplistic; and fails to acknowledge the intricate nature of the issues at play contributing to the current scenario. This analytical method dominant within the school of thought that argues for the inherently 'working class' nature of the post Mbeki era, gives too much prominence to individuals and personalities. The belief is that there are 'good meaning' people who are the solution to societal ills. Within this context, it is assumed, without meaningful deliberation that, because of Nzimande's ideological orientation and 'working class' rhetoric, tertiary institutions will be aligned more towards caring for poor workers and poor students. There is optimism that financial and academic exclusions, occurring nationwide, at the centre of class boycotts, will be a thing of the past. So will casualisation, privatisation and outsourcing which have led to job losses, poor working conditions and slave wages.

Barely, a week in office, Nzimande was requested by students of Unisa to intervene in a matter involving about 20 000 students threatened with being disqualified from writing the June exams due to outstanding academic fees. This, and a recent week long strike at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Howard College) give validity to concerns over the inadequacy of funds allocated to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS. In the 2009 election manifesto, apparently inspired by the 1955 Freedom Charter, the ANC is complacent over the 140 000 students that have benefitted from (NSFAS) since 1994. This echoes a similar attitude expressed by former Education Minister, Naledi Pandor, who, a few years ago, announced that the scheme had, for the first time, NSFAS had been allocated R1 billion to assist 'needy students'. Whilst this appears to be a significant figure, when juxtaposed with expenditure on a number of public funded mega projects which have no direct benefit for the majority, serious questions regarding our priorities arise. Three submarines, as part of the controversial rearmament programme, cost five times as much. The 2010 Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban has a price tag of more than double.

Restructuring and the associated corporatisation has introduced 'sub imperial' Financial Managers who are less concerned about the financial circumstances of students, but with limiting losses and balancing books. Simultaneously, funding from the national treasury has proved insufficient in meeting all the demands. In the backdrop of this, tertiary education has become quite an expensive commodity. This has been counterproductive: those (blacks) historically denied education continue to fall victim, no longer as a result of a racially based policy.

Indeed, there are other problems which impact on learning and teaching. With the principle 'money talks' reigning supreme, many students from poor communities battle to afford readings, books, photocopies and even food. Their level of concentration in class can never be compared with that of other students from affluent backgrounds who are dropped off every morning, or drive to campus after a decent breakfast. The latter are likely to perform better. The ongoing global economic crisis is likely to exacerbate this situation.
There is also the issue of academic and non-academic staff on short term contracts, at some institutions of higher learning, with no benefits. And the super exploitation of assistant lecturers and tutors, whose services are quite essential in teaching.

What is contained in a 'turn around' strategy of the new minister and the government? Arguably, this has to adopt an approach that appreciates the interconnectedness of issues. There must be a commitment to, inter alia, more funding to assist those too poor to afford higher education; and to improve the situation pertaining to resource shortages. The likely source of the extra funding must be specified. Will there be a redirection of expenditure or more taxation of the rich, including more corporate tax? What will be the implications for the overall growth centred budgeting approach of the government and the overall growth centred agenda? These are some of the questions that we should not shy away from asking and make the necessary links.

Furthermore, it would be a grave mistake to overlook the reality that 'Comrade Blade' and other Communists, including his Party deputy Jeremy Cronin, and the many trade unionists; have not been appointed onto the enlarged Zuma executive; and parliament on an explicitly 'communist' or 'working class' platform. They are 'deployees' of the ANC that, in recent years, has devised and implemented policies which even some left leaning elements of the Tripartite Alliance have severely criticised for being 'anti poor'; and contributing towards the growing inequalities. It has been made vividly clear that the Zuma administration will not divert from the 'sound' economic policies of the previous Mbeki administration. It is envisaged that the newly established 'Super Ministry', headed by Trevor Manuel, is likely to assume a 'big brother' role over departments to monitor if their programs and budgets are in accordance with the government's macro-economic policies and spending criteria.

The solution, therefore, can never lie with replacing personnel and creating new portfolios. The resignation of the Cope aligned Vice Chancellor of Unisa, Barney Pityana, as demanded by some student organisations, will not solve much. Putting the blame solely on tertiary institutions' management completely misses the point; and aids in further diverting attention from the real issues. Management and bureaucrats should be criticised for example failing to properly spend all the allocated funds. However, this should be looked at from the perspective of the superstructure and how it is incapable of improving the situation.

A number of pertinent issues have been raised above. I feel they must be incorporated into any analysis of the situation at institutions of higher learning vis a vis the recent administrative changes. There are lessons to draw from the past years of 'transformation'. There has been a significant increase in the number of black people in senior positions, some with struggle credentials; and some institutions and buildings have been renamed after struggle 'icons. This has not, automatically, translated into radical changes, as expected. On the contrary, some of the policies being pursued have reversed gains made in well documented past bitter struggles by students and workers.

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