Ed­u­ca­tion ‘the only way’ out of poverty

Lesotho Times - - Africa -

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.

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