#feesmustfall: Careful now

The agreement between Rhodes University and the student body over fees for 2016 is a significant achievement. One wonders how many students have been excluded by the harsh minimum initial payment (MIP) policy of previous years.


Even better, a student who is passing all courses no longer has to fear that they will be excluded if they cannot come up with fees to continue with their studies.

Now it will be up to Rhodes University to fund the deal. And that will be a mountain to climb.

#feesmustfall is just one aspect of transformation in South Africa’s universities.  There is a long way still to go, make no mistake. The transformation of Rhodes University has another critical dynamic nobody must forget.

Some 250 years ago few people lived in what today comprises the Makana Municipality. As people arrived from all directions so did conflict. Colonel Graham established an army town in a valley with no water and where it can go from as hot as Hades to as cold as charity in the course of an afternoon. Maybe he just wanted to send his sons to St Andrews College. Who knows?

But that’s all irrelevant now.

Irrespective of what the old South African text books may tell you about the 1820 Settlers, Grahamstown should never have grown beyond another dusty dorp. However along came the gaggles of clerics, academics, civil servants and workers. Yes, people are the natural resource of Makana. Not much else.

Today Statistics SA tells us Makana has 80 390 citizens. About 20 000 are children under 14 years of age and most of them are on grants. 32, 5% or about 26 000 are unemployed. The youth unemployment rate is at a staggering level of 42%.

So more than 46 000 of the 80 390 Makana citizens, (58%) have virtually nothing. Add in the elderly and it gets even more depressing.

SARS statistics now shows that the privileged of Makana are 7 398 and are the taxpayers who collectively earn around R1, 5 billion/pa and pay about R250 million/pa in personal income tax. They have an average income of around R202 000/pa. Going by the national average about 700 citizens earn over R500 000/pa.

If one factors in all forms of government subsidy received in Makana the total must greatly exceed the contributions made by its taxpayers. The Makana community could never stand on its own.

12% of the Makana population, some 10 000, are students in Higher Education. Most of them are at Rhodes University.

Down the road is the Nelson Mandela Metropol. In stark contrast NMM has 153 527 taxpayers who earn an average of R200 000/pa and pay over R5bn in personal income tax. Although Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) is far bigger than Rhodes University it represents a far smaller proportion of the Nelson Mandela Metropol economy.

#feesmustfall may just be the catalyst universities need to truly address transformation in all its diverse aspects. If everybody embraces the opportunity of transformation, they could all be winners, but get it wrong and the very fabric of the Makana community will quickly rot.

The stakes are very high, not only for the students, but for all Makana citizens. So let’s be careful now and find more common ground and sustainable solutions.



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