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What lies beyond the fight for free education?

                                                  October 9, 2016.

I’m terrified that after winning the #FeesMustFall war I’ll be unemployed, writes Malaika Wa Azania.

Johannesburg – A week ago I facilitated a dialogue hosted by JSE-listed financial services provider MMI Holdings in Joburg. The theme of the dialogue was “Youth unemployment and entrepreneurship”.

Unemployed young people across Gauteng were brought together to engage in a conversation with skills development experts and entrepreneurs about the role entrepreneurship can play in alleviating some of the systematic and systemic challenges confronting the South African socio-economic milieu.

It was necessary that this dialogue be aimed specifically at young people.

According to Statistics South Africa, our population is largely made up of young people.

People below the age of 35 constitute approximately 66 percent of the population.

Naturally, the issue of #FeesMustFall took centre stage.

Young people at the dialogue, most of whom come from a working class background, could relate to the struggle for free education that students across the country are waging.

Many of the unemployed young people in the room did not have tertiary qualifications and had no prospect of entering higher education due to financial constraints and other systematic barriers.

And so, necessarily, there was consensus that access to higher education – both traditional universities and technical and vocational training colleges – is fundamental to addressing the crisis of youth unemployment.

The conversation was redirected when a young man asked a very pertinent question, one which begs critical analysis, especially from students like me engaged in #FeesMustFall protests.

His question was: “If free education is to be achieved, what fundamental purpose will it serve in the absence of a growing economy?”

This question is very important and I am not sure it is receiving the kind of attention it should, particularly from students.

Our focus has been to access higher education, so much so that we neglected to think beyond that. But it is critical that we do, because “what happens after we win the battle for free education?”is directly linked to why we have shut down institutions of higher learning today.

Let us imagine that the government finally accedes to the demands of students and announces that free education will be provided next year and, furthermore, that all historical debt will be erased.

Let us imagine that all of us will be awarded our degrees within the next few years.

Let us imagine South Africa with a high number of graduates ready to enter the labour market and help strengthen the economy.

Now, let us pause and reflect on the facts.

According to Stats SA, while the country’s economy showed some signs of growth in the second quarter this year, growing by 3.3 percent, growth remains low. Our GDP in the first quarter contracted by more than 1 percent.

This has been the trend for the past few years.

When the economy grows, it is by a marginal percentage, often less than 1 percent.

This is then followed by a relatively higher contraction. Our economy has been growing very marginally over the past few years and the Reserve Bank predicts that the local economy will not grow at all this year.

This continuous contraction has devastating implications for the long-term objectives of the #FeesMustFall cause.

The rationale behind free education is not simply that young people from a working class background must have doors of learning open to them; it is fundamentally a question of redressing injustices of the past.

Access to higher education means young working class people will lift their families out of poverty. It means black people in particular will have a chance at making in-roads in addressing historical disenfranchisement that has seen us remain on the periphery of the economy.

But there is a condition: that young, educated people find employment or entrepreneurship opportunities.

And yet, a prolonged period of slow economic growth inevitably leads to high unemployment.

The contracting of the economy means the government and private sector will find it much harder to create jobs.

Even if young people do obtain critical skills, without an environment conducive to the creation of job opportunities they will still be unemployed.

This concern was raised by Nicholas de Canha, chief executive of Imperial Fleet Management, which offers technical artisan training.

De Canha argued that even though a great number of artisan jobs are considered critical skills, most artisans are still unemployed largely as a result of inadequate job opportunities.

Furthermore, young black people, including graduates, are hardest hit by this.

In 2015, black graduate unemployment was about 10 percent, compared to 2 percent for whites.

It is, therefore, clear that the struggle for free education does not exist in isolation to the struggle for both the transformation of a segmented labour market and the transformation of the South African economy.

An untransformed labour market means the state will remain the largest employer of black graduates and that in the private sector, patterns of employment, promotions and income will remain racialised in favour of white graduates.

As young black students engage in this struggle for free education, we must begin to broaden our conversation around our struggle. Alongside the issue of what happens after free education, we must also speak about the class differentiation that characterises basic education in our country.

The fact is that most children from historically disadvantaged communities, particularly in townships and rural areas, will not access higher education not only because it is expensive, but because of the inferior standard of education they receive that will make it very difficult for them to obtain the requisite scores to enter university.

Understanding the need to link our struggle for free tertiary education with the struggle for quality basic education and a transformed economy that can absorb graduates is critical precisely because it enables us to adopt visionary strategies and tactics.

It also provides us with an opportunity to do what we have often failed to do, which is to compel all South Africans to be part of our struggle.

High school students should be part of these protests – they are the motive force of the #FeesMustFall revolution.

Unemployed graduates and all unemployed people should be at the forefront of this struggle for justice.

Even employed graduates and self-employed people should be mobilised, not only because most of them know too well the struggles of an exorbitant tertiary education, but because they, too, are a force for a transformed economy that will address the segmentation of the labour market as well as create a conducive environment for entrepreneurship.

To mobilise all these people demands that we cease to confine #FeesMustFall to simply the institution of higher learning struggle.

As a student, my concern is not simply the financial struggles I am facing at university right now, I am also terrified at the very real possibility that after going through this painful journey to seek tertiary qualification, I will join the growing statistics of unemployed graduates and entrepreneurs battling to get support for their businesses. That would defeat the very logic of why I fought so hard for fees to fall in the first place.

The Sunday Independent

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