As we move towards the end of the first quarter of 2021, the democratic landscape of the country seems to be unraveling at a faster pace now than ever before. While some may want to lay the blame at the doorstep of the COVID-19 Pandemic, it is becoming abundantly clear that the Pandemic served as only the accelerant for what were systemic issues that underpinned our democratic landscape that were treated with inertia and band-aid policies.
From the current higher education student funding protests, trigger happy police, and the former President Zuma’s defiance to adhere to the Constitutional Court ruling to appear before the Zondo Commission, to tea parties, the never-ending story of Eskom’s maintenance debacle and load-shedding saga, the continuous service delivery protests, and the scourge of gender and children based violence to identify just some of the afflictions, it would be easy to think that we have reached the apocalypse of the country’s young democracy. Not to sound overly dramatic and hopeless but as I argued in a previous commentary:
Sadly, though, if this is indeed the case, then the pathways to a sustainable democratic landscape seems to be moving in the opposite direction more rapidly than we could have anticipated.
The Challenge of Higher Education
The funding crisis of education has been the Achilles Heel of the country’s democratic dispensation. In fact the contradiction in offering free education was always going to be and remain the straw that will break the camel’s back. Not because providing free education whether at secondary or tertiary levels would be antithetical or incompatible in the democratic context of the post-apartheid state. But precisely because of the nature of the democratic model that inherently excludes the indigent and vulnerable from disadvantaged backgrounds to fulfil the financial obligations of university inclusion. And notwithstanding other forms of socio-economic exclusion.
Moreover the manner in which fiscal policy is designed based on an orthodox austerity approach, which does not take into account the structural circumstances of the political, economic and social plight that affects the majority in the country, makes the architecture of pro-poor budgetary processesing more about the figment of the imagination and waxy rhetoric. And little about the transformation agenda and politics of social justice policy-making.
This is the conundrum of the situation.
With an unprecedented rise in youth unemployment, achieving an university degree becomes that more important and strategic. The constant message has not been lost on the youth that they represent the future engine of economic growth. Yet, despite having the right to education as entrenched in the Constitution, this is undermined by inter-generational inequality when it comes to levelling the playing field between lives and livelihoods. The latter made that much more difficult when the corresponding duty by the state is compromised by promises that are not aligned to having the resources and implementation will to do so.
To be clear the injustices and scars of the apartheid cannot be easily undone. Though this does not suggest that the ruling post-apartheid government should be pardoned from their responsibility when it comes to delivering on their mandate. The end result is the underlying issue of an existential dilemma that grips the democratic affairs of the state.
The Existential Dilemma
The idea that the current millennial generation should sacrifice their rights to education, a decent livelihood and a respectable life defined by human dignity can no longer be just examined through the lens of a student financial protest. Or to put another way they should wait their turn. Rather it is essentially about the existential dilemma that the 1994 negotiated transition and political settlement is now exposing and being revisited in its harrowing forms.
While the CODESA 1 and 2 discussions sought to demonstrate to the rest of the world that South Africa could serve as an exemplar framework for power-sharing and growth with redistribution aligned to and serving the interests of all political and economic stakeholders and social classes, what was not considered is whether the millennial generation would see it in the same way.
Unfortunately, they do not.
For the majority of the millennial generation today in the country, their lived experiences are shadowed by poverty, inequality, exclusion, and watching their parents work with very little to show for it. They are unapologetic for what they believe is rightfully theirs, and are not willing to be complacent and patient for a ‘Better Life’. Their time is now and they are unwavering in their demands and standoff with the state and other institutional authorities.
And herein lies the existential dilemma of a negotiated democracy. Its existence is on borrowed time.
But the existential dilemma is also about understanding why bailouts and setting more money aside in the state budget for state owned entities like SAA takes precedence over education which is considered as the very epitome of a developmental state. It is mindboggling to think that an airline that has been struggling for years can still be seen as having more traction over a critical development priority like education. Perhaps there is a deeper issue at play here that has to do with the fact that the state has more at stake to lose if creditors coming knocking at their door than angry students protesting for their right to a better life.
At the other end of the spectrum of the existential dilemma is the re-orienting of the funding priorities within higher education. If money has to be reallocated to defray costs for undergraduate students, then where will the compromises be seen in terms of which students will have to sacrifice their financial rights. The most obvious casualty in all of this will be funding to post-graduate studies. Unfortunately at this point the challenge faced by the undergraduate funding deficit is larger and more implosive. The simple reason is that for the many of thousands of matriculants and other returning students the only option they have right now is to seek (re)admission into university as a way to offset their socio-economic woes. It offers them a modicum of survival.
The end result is going to be equally chilling of a never ending cycle where demands and protests for financial inclusion is going to recalibrate towards post-graduate exclusion, and come back again to the undergraduate financial question.
What does this mean for universities?
Universities will also face funding cuts and reductions in subsidies from government. They will get caught in their own financial distresses of how to remain sustainable. The response will be to look towards ways to address the funding shortfalls through increasing fees, offering more online executive education courses to assist with the finances, and moving towards a leaner university architecture in terms of human resources and hybrid models of teaching that shifts towards more managed onsite engagements that will mitigate financial overhead costs. Once again universities will revert back to their original identity of being elitist centres of academic exclusion.
All this means is that we will remain in a continuous loop of an existential crisis.
This has become the context and significance of celebrating Human Rights day this year, but also for the better part of the past decade and half. Yet the existential dilemma is not just about political will. It signifies a bigger institutional dilemma of policy planning that does not resonate with the expectations of the electorate. It would seem that the astonishment that scenes reminiscent of Marikana will just automatically disappear is not only wishful thinking but also borne out of an inherent naivety.
What is daunting is whether we can honestly say that we did not expect this to happen. While calls for national dialogues and rhetoric persists on racial inclusion and social cohesion, the bottom line is that there is a majority of young South Africans (mainly African) whose lives will remain the same, if not become more impoverished. The question then is how does a system suffering from competing existential dilemmas restore confidence and trust when corruption and greed has commodified the democratic architecture of the state. We are not living in a democracy that should be consolidating but a democracy that is on the run. And most political, economic and social actors are playing catch-up.
Where this would lead is anyone’s guess.
The one certainty, though, is that the millennial generation are not going to accept anything less than the dues that are owed to their parents and themselves. This is what they see as their legitimate human rights where the time has come to claim their rightful place in this society and demand the respect from those who rose to the top on the backs and shoulders of their parents. We have reached the point of no return.
Sanusha Naidu is a Senior Research Associate based with the Institute for Global Dialogue. The views expressed here are personal.