Education ‘the only way’ out of poverty
JOHANNESBURG — Like many young black South Africans, fourth-year law student Tiisetso Rapasa dreams of finishing her degree, the only chance she has of hauling herself out of poverty in a country saddled with 50 percent youth unemployment.
But the 22-year-old’s aspirations are threatened by the R42,000 she owes Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), an amount she says she cannot pay, like thousands of her peers in Africa’s most advanced economy.
“If I don’t graduate, my contract with the law firm that I’m signed with might be revoked,” Rapasa told Reuters at one of last week’s nationwide protests to demand a freeze in tuition fees — a demand met on Friday by an underpressure President Jacob Zuma.
Around her in the crowd, fellow students threatened to cripple the education system, waving placards saying: “If the Black child won’t study, no one will”.
Born in the dying days of apartheid, Rapasa is a so-called ‘Born Free’, one of millions of South Africans with no memory of the whiteminority rule that ended when Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress took over in 1994.
But for her democracy has not meant an end to hardship in a country beset with deep social problems.
She never met her father and her mother died 10 years ago, leaving her to hop throughout her teen years from one family member to the next until her aunt and uncle took her in.
With financial problems of their own, her aunt could not help fund Rapasa’s tuition fees, forcing her to beg for financial support from the Wits Law School. Even that was not enough to buy books and groceries.
“As much as I work hard, I’ve just never been lucky with scholarships,” Rapasa said with a sigh.
When universities announced a hike in 2016 tuition fees of as much as 11.5 percent, it was the last straw for Rapasa, who joined thousands of others, black and white, in protests across the country, united under the Twitter hashtag #Feesmustfall.
Despite large improvements since 1994, black students are still under-represented in South African universities and critics say the fees exacerbate the inequalities in a country where white households earn six times more than black ones.
While funding for poor students in the form of cheap loans through the National Financial Aid Scheme has increased to more than R9.5 billion in 2015 from just R441 million in 1997, it is not enough.
The government budgeted R33 billion for university funding for this year, but still requires students to pay fees to top up the state contribution.
Those charges vary across universities, but can be as high as R60,000 for medical students - a figure well beyond the means of millions of households. When the government aid scheme failed to pay his fees, 20-year-old Aviwe Koli was forced to drop out before the final year of his science degree and return to his family home in the Eastern Cape, South Africa’s poorest province.
His father’s security guard’s income is not enough to even pay for registration.
“Now I’m looking for a job so I can save money and get back to university,” Koli said.
Rapasa was also among those failed by the government aid scheme, pushing her to within a whisker of dropping out of university in her second year.
“The plan was for me to sit at home and maybe look for a job,” she said. In the end, her uncle sold his two cars to raise the cash to allow her to continue her degree. For her, that piece of paper is priceless. “My degree is my way out of poverty and breaking the poverty cycle that I was born into,” she said.
Students protest over planned increases in tuition fees in Stellenbosch on 23 October 2015.