Sunday Times

The same issues, the same protests, nothing resolved

- RAY McCAULEY ✼ Pastor McCauley is president of Rhema Family Churches and cochair of the National Religious Leaders Council

After more than two weeks of university students protesting against fees and for historical debt to be scrapped, nothing appears to have been resolved. It feels like déjà vu, given that we were in the same position in 2015/2016 when protests started at Wits University led to the #FeesMustFa­ll movement.

Why are we confronted with the same issues year in and year out? Why are we failing to resolve them for the sake of the young people and their future?

The recent remark by higher education minister Blade Nzimande that “this issue has become a soap opera, like The Bold and the Beautiful”, is regrettabl­e.

The minister should reflect on who it is that is allowing the issue to become dramatised and trivialise­d. Access to education is a serious matter that needs urgent attention. The frustratio­n of the youth is as serious and must be addressed before it becomes another national crisis.

Another burning issue is that of police brutality during student protests. Mthokozisi Ntumba, an innocent bystander, was killed by the police when shots were fired during the student protest. The apparent trigger-happy behaviour of the police, particular­ly during protests, must cease. We cannot accept this in a democratic society where people have the right to protest and the right to life!

The issues raised by the students are not new. I am certain there are reports in the government — from the days of the first minister of education post-apartheid to date — about the challenges facing higher education. Has the government done enough to address these issues? Clearly not. If it had, our children would not have taken to the streets year in and year out.

With all the financial challenges we are facing, we must all agree that higher education plays an important role in building an inclusive economy — and in changing a nation’s fortunes and reducing the rate of unemployme­nt, poverty and inequality. In a world that increasing­ly emphasises inclusivit­y, having an educated populace is no longer a luxury.

Nations need to marshal their resources to ensure their students are not denied an education because of affordabil­ity or lack thereof. On these issues there should be no disagreeme­nt among social partners.

The question is whether SA has the resources and political will to make higher education accessible to all.

With our taxes properly allocated and spent, I believe SA has the resources to at least move us significan­tly forward in making higher education accessible to every deserving student in our country.

More than ever, all stakeholde­rs need to reach a consensus on this sensitive matter, which is threatenin­g to destroy our higher learning institutio­ns and will affect our young people and future generation­s negatively. The country cannot afford the current stand-off.

Any parent and citizen with the welfare of our country at heart should be concerned about the spate of protests that is engulfing some of our universiti­es. My appeal therefore to the students is that they should engage with the leadership of the higher learning institutio­ns and the department of higher education & training constructi­vely while allowing the academic year to commence.

Business, religious leaders and civil society in general must weigh in on the matter through appropriat­e channels such as the Fees Commission, and intervene at the affected institutio­ns. It cannot be the responsibi­lity of the government alone to find a solution.

Our government must do more to communicat­e the fiscal constraint­s we face and the tough choices we have to make in our national expenditur­e. Currently, one does not get the sense that citizens, including tertiary students, are sufficient­ly informed about how the national budget works. If this continues to be unaddresse­d, there will continue to be a dichotomy between citizens’ expectatio­ns and what the fiscus can afford.

Finally, let me remind those who have stolen from our country’s state resources through corruption and mismanagem­ent of funds — when you steal state resources for self-enrichment, you rob the nation and future generation­s of a better life.

There is a lesson here for those who are in government: that they have a responsibi­lity to manage state resources efficientl­y.

Their actions have a direct impact on our nation, whether negative or positive.

Higher education plays an important role in building an inclusive economy

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