The public university has never been a public good

By Mvuzo Ponono

I was seven years old in 1994 when the dawn of democracy brought the light of Model C education. So began my journey to the Promised Land that would deliver my family from the working class. Such was the euphoria of the time that I remember discussing with a friend that Mandela had done a great thing – delivering free education to the masses. It wasn’t until years later that I realised that my parents were paying for that functional education. They paid for the transport. They paid for the semi-private boys’ high school after that. They went broke paying the exorbitant university fees, which were demanded upfront.

My parents had to pay to give me a shot because quality free education in South Africa has always been a burden the state was unwilling to bear. Free public schooling is in shambles, and free medical care is a hell hole. We have always existed in two nations in this country, the world of the mediocre public provisions and the world of the super-efficient private service. The best universities in the country are public institutions only by virtue of the fact that their value demands public backing.

Which brings me to the current issue. I wholly agree with the call for free education, but must confess that it has been difficult wrapping my head around the idea. This is precisely because the bifurcation of this land is so old and established. Many of us have spent our adulthoods decolonising our minds, but our realities are rooted in the segregated post-colony. Achille Mbembe has wisely pointed out that in the post-colony, privatisation has been consolidated, and the elite civic space is made more exclusive. It is such a context that I have battled to clearly fathom the revolutionary call heralded by students that we must halt the limitation of public good and make universities accessible to all.

The fight has never been seen as a public good

We have not been making the distinction between the university as a public good and the university as an investment in self. This is important for a number of reasons. Contrary to Mbembe’s assertion that the Welfarist version of the university is in decline in Africa after a postcolonial boom, this is a version we have never enjoyed in South Africa. The university in South Africa has operated on a corporatist, commoditised model meant to be an investment in individual futures.

The elite struggle to see the legitimacy of the long-term fight for fee free higher education because it has never been seen as a public good, not in the broader sense of the term. The top institutions in South Africa have always been subsidised to better serve the privileged few. The limitation of access is further entrenched by the fact that the economically empowered minority could afford a premium, and did not mind paying because university education was an investment in self.

This mode of thinking makes sense within Western individual normative discourses and within the colonial ideological structures which prefer restricted minority access. Two decades into the democratic dispensation this arrangement cannot be sustained because the black lower middle class, working class and underclass cannot afford the add-on premium. The tragic part is that this segment of the population cannot afford not to afford because they are the most desperate to attain the social capital that comes with higher education. Many families are digging themselves into debt putting their children through university.

It takes longer to build a university than to tear it down

2015 ushered in an era where the (mostly) unanimous chant was that this model was no longer viable.

Students have demanded the opening of access to education so that middle class aspirations are no longer a bare-knuckle fight for survival. They have demanded that we reverse our thinking about universities and see these institutions as a public good rather merely self-investment. They borrow this discourse from the logic that post-colonial and post-conflict societies need such programmes in order to offer the sidelined an opportunity improve their lot.

The crux of the conflict is as Mbembe noted, the government views the university differently to students. The government, middle class, and the elite will continue to see the public good approach as an unnecessary burden that threatens the health of historic institutions. They will continue to think it is enough that the playing fields have been superficially opened, that there is room for the poor to join the ranks if they work hard enough. This is in line with the global middle class value attached to the university – not as a source of knowledge production but more as a conduit into the realm of the middle class.

Although I agree with Mbembe that it takes much longer to build a university than to tear it down, this should not stop us from fighting to make a university a site that serves a particular public good. In doing so, I believe that we should also make a distinction between shutting down the university and destruction of property. Shutting down the university to demand a common good is not the same as destroying it. Yes, many may suffer when universities are rendered ungovernable, and many academics might leave for greener pastures, but any freedom fighter who struggles for good is driven by the achievement of ideals despite pain endured.

Shutting down universities benefits no one

Furthermore, students must refrain from playing into elite imaginary by buying into the idea that only destruction hails attention. The systematic denial of access to those who are born entitled to it is the slow war of attrition that gets the point across. Shutting down universities benefits no one. On the other hand, allowing the status quo to remain, then continues to exclude the majority.

What we have to acknowledge is that in a South Africa characterised by elite continuity and the tight gate keeping on access to resources, adopting the public good approach is not going to happen overnight. To change the existing valuation and bring new order a fight is necessary. As Jane Duncan points out, power cedes nothing without struggle. Those who need the university as a public good have to fight to realise that dream.

Images courtesy of Leeroy Seeletse.

More stories in Issue 76

Contributors

Mvuzo Ponono

Mvuzo Ponono is a Xhosa man from the Eastern Cape, now based at the University of the Free State. His research interests include audience, and postcolonial studies. His MA examined the influence of a township family context on the interpretation of a health education television programme. His current PhD research is an ethnographic study on […]

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