By Zukiswa Wanner
Two true stories.
A few years ago while doing research on education in South Africa, I visited some schools in villages outside Thohoyandou. At one of the schools, the principal introduced me to their librarian. With the Department of Basic Education not having provided a librarian at this school, the Principal had seen the need for one and, after discussing some fundraising initiatives with the parents, they decided to employ the librarian, an alumnus of the school. In conversation with her, the librarian informed me that she had been desirous to undertake tertiary studies but could not afford it. She had, she told me, wanted to study humanities but scholarships seemed to exist mostly for science students. She was now paying for her studies with some of her salary as she studied Archives and Record Management part-time.
The second story, closer to home, is about my cousin Siyanda. An orphan. Her mother died when she was 12 and she was raised by her maternal grandmother and my paternal grandmother, a pensioner. Upon completion of high school, she wanted to study Accounting, but with my grandmother’s resources already overstretched, it was all makhulu could do to put food on the table for Siyanda and her two siblings who stayed with her. With the help of another cousin, Siyanda did a crash call centre course in one of those money-making, fly-by-night colleges that abound in Johannesburg. She got a useless certificate which failed to net her a single job and the college got hers, and many other hopeful youngsters’ money. Now a single mother of two, her jobs have comprised mostly promotions in supermarkets and she has had to bury any dreams of being an accountant, good as she has always been with numbers.
Two true stories.
With one hopeful ending.
The librarian was lucky that she had a community who believed in her. While she does not earn enough and can only save enough to take one or two courses every semester, she is definitely better off than my cousin Siyanda. But who is to say that the cost will not get more or that something more urgent will not come up in her life that will force her to divert her resources elsewhere?
Siyanda on the other hand, was not so lucky. With the type of burden she has on her shoulders, it appears that it is too little too late to give Siyanda her dream job as a chartered accountant. My younger cousin, at 29, shall possibly forever be relegated to doing in-store promotions, and when in between promotions, doing laundry for her neighbours for measly amounts so that she can ensure her children are fed and clothed.
Our librarian and Siyanda are, sadly, not unique cases. Every village and township in South Africa has many men and women who have had to shelve their dreams because their families are financially unable to bear the burden. Indeed, our education system works so strongly against the people it is supposed to benefit that visits to a number of schools in Limpopo Province show that we are unable to have our own teachers, and Principals are recruiting from neighbouring countries. Twenty two years after democracy we cannot even train our own teachers for our schools.
There have been times where parents have had dreams of a higher education for their children. Blue collar workers who go to a bank to get a loan so that their child can access tertiary education. Unfortunately those loans are never enough to cover all the years of tertiary. Last year as students toyi-toyi’ed during the #FeesMustFall protests, it became blatantly clear that the nation had failed many students. Students spoke of being barred from classes on account of fees that were unpaid. Other testimonies talked of students considered ‘too rich’ to access free bursaries using the very limited bar that the Department of Higher Education has set. Too often this bar ignores the possibility that the breadwinner may have other dependants in the extended family beyond the prospective tertiary student. This has often resulted in high dropout rates when students are unable to pay for the rest of their education. Sadly with no education, it means unemployment or, at best, the type of employment that can only be menial.
What type of society are we creating then where we cannot empower our people to fend for themselves by giving them an education? Indeed, despite what section 29. 1. B of our Bill of Rights states, that everyone has the right to further education, which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible, facts on the ground have proven to the contrary. Now it is highly possible that the state will argue that the interpretation of ‘progressively’ in that section of the Constitution could mean twenty five years or fifty but unfortunately, whatever legal minds may want to argue will not help those like my cousin who have been failed by the system in the last twenty two years of South African democracy. A leaked report during the protests showed that South Africa is financially able to bear the burden of giving free tertiary education to the poor in our society. That we have not done so or refuse to do so is an indictment on us as a nation.
It may be too late to give the librarian and Siyanda redress for failing them but in this third decade of our democracy, we the people should put enough pressure on our government so that all high school students who qualify, are able to access higher education. As a country, we owe it to all those who were beaten, tortured or died for daring to want more from South Africa’s education system during the apartheid era. History already judges us harshly for our country’s inability to give a higher education to Siyanda and many others like her in the streets and villages of South Africa. It will judge us still more harshly if we fail Siyanda’s children the way we failed her. It is time our legislators start earning their blue lights and salaries and agitate in Parliament to ensure free tertiary education for all. They owe it to all South African citizens to help the government uphold the Constitution.
Zukiswa Wanner is a South African journalist and novelist. Her debut novel, The Madams, was shortlisted for the K. Sello Duiker Award in 2007. Her most recent novel, Men of the South, was shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. In April 2014 Wanner was named on the Hay Festival’s Africa39 list of 39 Sub-Saharan African writers aged under 40 with potential and talent to define trends in African literature.