NKOSIKHONA DUMA: Unequal universities are a microcosm of SA’s society



At university, some of the smartest people I met were originally from rural and peripheral areas and had gone to schools there.

Many were shy, and we heard their voices for the first time in class during group presentations. Many had South African Students Congress and Economic Freedom Fighters Students Command T-shirts, and were the most coveted constituency for those wanting to occupy Student Representative Council (SRC) office.

Perhaps the tragic issue about many of them was that their confidence levels were so low, they hardly socialised outside their communities and their collective struggle was always up for exploitation. We know that in recent years it’s become a lucrative business to occupy political office within higher education institutions and stage protests against economic activities that take place behind the scenes. Those who claim to fight for whom they term “the children of the working class” often form part of a patronage network that so-called advises university managers in the selection of service providers for events, such as Freshers parties, and landlords for outsourced residence buildings.

Once they serve as SRC members, student politicians also work closely with university officials who appoint security companies during protests. It’s alleged that corrupt officials and student politicians receive kickbacks during procurement procedures.

Most of the confident people I met, including some among the political class, came from privileged backgrounds. They ran pro-capital organisations like Enactus, and appeared to disproportionately take up leadership roles in lesser known but elite organisations, such as the Golden Key Society. Through these organisations, they had access to networks that come in handy in the pursuit of careers. Their confidence allowed them to comfortably rub shoulders with the right people at book launches, art galleries and cocktail hours after seminars.

But their lesser privileged counterparts were never exposed to many career advancing events, and at the few they had access to they would opt to ask for selfies instead of trying to have a conversation that makes a lasting impression with someone they would rarely interact with at close range again.

Many poor students were not raised in homes where family members and friends were professionals who could expose them to important information. For example, if they wanted to be lawyers, there was no immediate person who could talk to them about the legal fraternity before they settle in their choice. They were not taught about basic networking skills from a young age, and their schools hardly had visits by highly achieved individuals with valuable knowledge to offer.

At university, they found refuge at political seminars where there was collective agreement that White Monopoly Capital was the source of their misery, socialism is the future and Franz Fanon has answers to today’s problems. But some erstwhile student politicians are senior government officials and members of Parliament today. They still preach socialism, but are driven around in expensive cars, live in suburbia and send their children to elite schools. So-called venture capitalists fund their political campaigns and they socialise in high-end bars and clubs.

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate has continued to increase, even among graduates. Some – those with a better command of English – have left the country to teach the language in Asian countries.

In this way, our universities remain a microcosm of our unequal society.

Nkosikhona Duma is a reporter with Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter on @NkoRaphael


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