By failing to appreciate gains that would flow from students’ calls for free education, we miss the opportunity to address imbalances of the past, says Frank Lekaba.

Many observers of the #FeesMustFall movement have focused much of their attention on the vandalism of properties and violence emerging from the protests. Vandalism must be condemned, but it must not be used by opponents of the movement as ammunition against a good cause. These observers have neglected key issues.

I wonder how many would contest the view that this movement is seeking to de-commodify education and restore it to its supposed position in society. It is a movement, over and above the falling of fees, seeking to liberate the black majority and restoration of their humanity. The falling of fees is just a first step in higher education access. There are other barriers including the admission point systems for acceptance into programmes of study, lack of infrastructure to accommodate more students and lack of academic staff.

One of the leading commentators against #FeesMustFall is Professor Jonathan Jansen. He has published a series of articles, lambasting the violence and disruption of classes by students, particularly at Wits University.

In his commentary, he has crudely reduced the cause for free education to “lawlessness” and further over-emphasised the “minority” aspect of students engaged in the protests. He thinks the best response to the protesting student should be a counter action from what he believes to be the poor “majority”.

The dear professor states: “I have always maintained that the best way to resolve these destructive protests is when other students push back, particularly the poor, who see their life chances evaporating before their very eyes”.

I don’t think the issue of numbers arises when discussing the key issue of societal transformation. We should guard against subjecting issues of transformation to a referendum for them to be legitimate; dominance by numbers than reasoning and rationality should be rejected.

What the professor is suggesting is a serious lethal and divisive move to a just cause. Jansen is seeking to pit students against each other and avoid the discussion of free education, either for all or for the poor. He seeks to sustain the status quo – higher education as a privilege than a right to all.

The other person who has joined the chorus of Jansen is Prince Mashele who offers nothing new but sides with the government. He posits that “it makes sense for black children to call for fees to fall. What boggles the mind is why do black children of the working class and the poor fight for the children of millionaires not to pay for their education”.

I’m really convinced that Mashele has not adequately read the proposal put forth by students.

Students working on the model of fees must fall said: “But if you tax the wealthy (by means of a wealth tax), and they too benefit from free education, they will pay via this tax for an extended period. It makes sense to say free education for all because then we don’t have a limitation that allows rich people to escape their contribution.”

Dr Mosibudi Mangena and our statistician-general Pali Lehohla, however, tried to add value to the debate. In his article Mangena commended students: “The work of student activists at Wits, who researched and made proposals that demonstrate the affordability of fee-free higher education in our country, persuaded me to sit up and think.

“They didn’t burn and destroy anything, they put on their thinking caps and produced some worthwhile ideas that deserve some serious consideration”. To demonstrate he has read the students’ proposal he reiterates their stance, “basically, they suggest that the state increase its grants to universities up to 50% of their budgets; a graduate tax be imposed; corporate and sales taxes be increased and a wealth tax be introduced. Their calculations indicate these measures might take us over the line.”

Added to this voice is Lehohla’s position: “One has to therefore ask the question: what is really wrong with these students? The ranking scheme points to a result that places years of schooling as a second most crucial driver of poverty after unemployment. Unemployment is the first priority. In this regard the quest for exposure to a maximum of unhindered and uninterrupted years of schooling by students finds resonance in this analysis. The finding is not in the immediacy of the psyche of society. The evidence, therefore, suggests that the relegation of education to priority 18 by society is uninformed. ”The finding says the obvious – when years of schooling increase, poverty recedes and when these years recede, poverty increases. So barriers to entry into higher and high quality education are causing and sustaining poverty.”

The last point raised by Lehlola is what the government and all involved in the discourse on fees should appreciate and realise. Access to higher education doesn’t only address poverty, but would also bridge the gap of inequality. A highly skilled force would contribute positively to economic growth and elimination of poverty, inequality and unemployment. The other point observers miss is that Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande is not offering fee-free higher education, but capping increments at 8%.

Students have demonstrated they are willing to discuss free education. Nzimande has an opportunity to present a counter-proposal to the students. If we continue to miss the point of benefits from fees must fall, we miss a golden opportunity to radically address imbalances of the past.