Author and Activist
Universities - are we on the same page?
Let me see if I get this right. Universities are there to train an elite worker class, a small group of capital managers and an even smaller group of entrepreneurs. Universities are there to raise the level of research in our society because research has a direct effect on GDP growth. Universities are a Government intervention to fill these gaps because the market system does not have the long term vision to make these out-of-the-money investments.
In short Universities are there for the long term benefit to society as a whole and the economy in particular.
So what do you say to a young student clutching a copy of Here is a Tree (Subukwe's biography) and demanding that society redistributes its resources towards him? In a nutshell his argument is that he is black, comes from an under privileged background and requires this redistribution to succeed. He is asking the state to subsidise him for around R 100 000 per year. Surrounding him are service workers at the University, there to work rather than study. Driven primarily by the stark unfairness of asking only for a R 100 000 redistribution to himself, he is obliged to ask also that the workers be in sourced and their remuneration uplifted to R10 000 per month.
Lets get the race thing out of the way first. Being black in South Africa is not special. We are to all intents a black society. 90% of the tax revenue is spent on the upliftment of black people. When you ask for the redistribution of tax resources, you are effectively asking for the redistribution from one black person to another. It is both mischievous and ill-conceived to turn this into a racist issue.
Now lets deal with inequality. The argument of the fees must fall movement is that it is unfair for the rich (white students) to be able to afford education and for those not qualifying for an NSFAS loan. There is no logic to this. Children of rich (presumably tax paying parents) are already contributing to the support of the poor. By them offering to pay in full the fees of their children, in addition to the tax already paid, they are offering a further contribution to paying for the long term society-goal of creating elite workers capable of taking on Koreans and Chinese. As society it would be foolish to turn down this offer from the rich to pay to train themselves. Taking on a paid student does not diminish the Government subsidy. The racist argument is misdirected. Would we rather be customers of the Chinese than allow white parents to pay to produce white workers? Inequality is unfair, let us not make it stupid too.
As society in general and the economy in particular, why should we deny this young man the opportunity of education and why should this not be a universal grant?
In a world of unlimited resources this would not be an issue, but in the real world it is. In South Africa 23 Million people live on or below the poverty line of monthly income of R 620 per month. If Subukwe were here he would surely have wanted us, as African Socialists, to help the poorest of our society first. Instead of paying this young man R 10 000 a month for his learning, we should rather uplift 10 families by R 1000 each. We are asking for more of the poor to give up food.
But we are not Subukwe, we are the custodians of one of the most unequal societies on earth and selfishly we decide to spend our money on the elite students and the Government workers (and researchers) that manage their system. We do this because we believe that it is more important to subsidise this young man than it is to feed the poor. To this end we put aside R28 BN for university Subsidies, R 14,3 Bn for the NSFAS and R14.6 Bn for Education Administration. That is approximately equal to one third of the money we spend on social grants to 15 million people. That is we take the food out of the mouths of approximately 5 Million People and give it to students and Government workers.
Why do we do this?
We do this because we believe it is more important to create a worker elite than it is to feed the unproductive. This investment in the future is what will make us competitive with Korea, China and the rest of Africa in the years ahead. We are truly a heartless and ruthless society. However there is a limit. What Government is saying is that R42 BN is the limit that they can accept of this unfair distribution.
Ultimately the choice of how this tax is distributed is the choice of the South African voter. The voters choose this Government and this Government (with support from the Opposition) decides to pay either themselves or the Poor or the Students. The choice is a dark zero sum game. Redistribute to Government Workers or Students or the poor. It is not the fault of reality that all three goals are mutually exclusive.
Economics is a dark science and is very rarely viewed rationally. Inequality in particular is always viewed from the economic circumstances of the observer. The young man brandishing Subukwe's biography, is angry about inequality, but particularly angry about his perceived placement on the wrong side of the income median. If you have followed the numbers, his perception is an incorrect view of the truth about poverty in South Africa. What he is really asking for in this redistribution is to even further skew inequality. Right now his frustration is born out by stamping up dust. This includes inciting racist tension and destroying public property.
Africa is a hard place and we have no issue with Africans trying to advance themselves. Capitalism offer you that opportunity (the fees must fall activist is after all asking for a capitalist handout). We can hear you when you are saying that you are better and more deserving that another South African. You start to fade away when you tell us that you are unhappy about the way the African voter has chosen to distribute tax and that because you are unhappy with that distribution, you will destroy or destabilize the institutions that the African voters have chosen to support. To those that have given up the most for you this must seem the most disturbing.
A far more optimal course is to take the R50 BN offered and maximize the use of the the time that you have at University. For every one of you that has the privilege to study, you have beaten off 10 South Africans that will suffer in poverty to support you. Spend your efforts to make our cruel investment in your future worth the sacrifice that we have made.
Philip Copeman is Project Leader of TurboCASH Accounting and member of the PAC. He writes here in his own capacity.