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Decolonising the South African University: Thinking Outside the Box!


This thought piece argues that in order to decolonise the university[1] and the higher education system we need to consider the university not as an established, consolidated, bounded entity, but rather as an embryonic, networked and interconnected one; one that is fully embedded within the public sphere as a public good, without exceptions. It argues that we need to think outside of the inherited boundaries that the university is currently located within in order to imagine it as an entity that can help give birth – not only to new ideas – but to a wholly new society.


Note that this piece is not intended to be a systematic formulation of how South African higher education institutions should decolonise, but rather to highlight options that exist for a radical re-imagining of them and their role within society. These options are hence not proposals; they are merely put forward to stimulate new thinking on this critical challenge. In reality, a comprehensive framework for transformation of the university would have to be generated through a societal consensus.


Thus far, the debates around the #FeesMustFall movement in the media – often conducted by academics and government officials – have largely been uninspiring. The options that have been put on the table generally do not engage in a radical re-imagining of the university and its role within society. Yet, a radical re-imagining is precisely what students (and some academics) have been demanding and arguing for; not just in South Africa, but around the world. 

The term “decolonisation” has been used to describe this demand, but what it means is as yet unclear. It is an imaginary that still needs to be formulated, and it may be imagined differently in different contexts. What is clear, however, is that a bold new vision needs to be co-constructed for public education; one that society can buy into and support into the long term.


The Settler University - Thinking Inside the Box:


Until now, the debates in South Africa have largely proceeded on the basis of accepting the current system of higher education as it is, and tinkering with its existing degrees of freedom, that is; the majority of proposals have been of the “thinking within the box” type. Typically, the logic around free education unfolds as follows; there are only three sources of income for the university; government funding, private sector funding, and fees.


When framed in this way, and located within the economic system that has produced this higher education system, the only ways free education can be offered are as follows; (1) the poor and “missing middle” students get free education – or loans that they only pay back if they pass (which is not free education) – and the middle and upper classes pay for education, (2) that government has to cut funding from another part of the state’s budget in order to fund free education (i.e. it comes at a cost to another sector of society; this is usually presented as single mothers, disabled people, people needing housing, healthcare and so forth i.e. the "selfish students" narrative), and (3) universal free education is funded by raising taxes across the board, or on the rich. 


All the above offerings are premised on a system of economics and a governance system that is dictated by public-private arrangements that are brokered in order to share the state’s responsibility in the provision of services to the people who it is there to safeguard (i.e. to act in the public interest or public good). This sharing, is generally brokered through an agreement with society (i.e. parents and students who pay fees), and the private sector (who fund certain activities and act as donors), and philanthropists (wealthy patrons who make donations). 


Yet, in the case of families, fees act as additional 'taxation' on their earnings, albeit one that they have a choice to make, but where not choosing to provide higher education for their children has very definite disadvantages for their children, and their future in the competitive South African labour market. That is; families are ‘double-taxed’ on tertiary education, while the benefits are accrued by society itself i.e. the state, the private sector, as well as the families and communities whose children are fortunate enough to receive a tertiary education in South Africa. 


The University Commons - A Shared Responsibility and Public Good:


Clearly, there is already a lot of sharing of the burden of keeping institutions of higher education healthy in South African society. But this theme does not as yet extend to the role of higher education institutions in society itself in full. That is, they still largely operate as private entities, to whom the public at large have little access and interaction with. They have not become institutions that are fully embedded within society; they are not members of the full commons that South African society has sought to establish in the post-1994 dispensation. 


The commons that the university belongs to is still largely a settler commons; to which the privileged and elite of society enjoy disproportionate access to. The university remains a settler enclosure in South African society; it is the preserve of the privileged. The rest of society is effectively regulated to the position of outsiders residing in an “undercommons”; one that mirrors the historical – and current – race, class and power dynamics of South African society.


So what if we had to re-imagine the university as a shared resource within a broader South African society? That is; what if we were to re-imagine the university as part of the real commons of South African society, and not the privatised, exclusive, ivory tower institutions that they currently are?  


One of the hallmarks of a shared public resource is the measure of public access to it. Another is the measure of public interaction with it as an everyday public facility to which they – the public – can look to for a variety of supportive functions that are enabled by the platforms that a university hosts and maintains. 


Moreover, the extent to which the functions of the university are embedded within the local society that it is a part of – i.e. through its physical presence, as well as the role it plays in employment, skills development, education, innovation, disruption, outreach, networking and problem-solving – and what roles these functions play in addressing the transformation that South African society aspires to as a whole, is paramount when considering the relevance of the university as a member of the greater commons.  


A lot has been made about the question of how to go about funding free education, and whether it is possible. The Minister for Higher Education’s position, shared by some, is that universal free access to education means “freebies for the rich”. The most recent rebuttal to the doubters has proposed a tax for the super-wealthy in South Africa; a proposal that seems reasonable given the drastic levels of inequality that prevails in South African society. This call mirrors those that have been made by #FeesMustFall protesters around the world, and there is also great resonance and overlap with the demands of Occupy movement protesters in this respect. 


Yet there is more that can be done. Instead of operating on a fee-basis to manage university margins; institutions could offer free education, but appeal to families to make annual donations, for which they receive tax exemptions, giving people the freedom to make larger donations. So can the private sector. That is, the institution could adopt a “sharing economy” approach; i.e. they take donations, but do not charge fees, and both individuals and organisations in society would be able to effectively steer a portion of their taxes towards a priority cause. This would constitute a direct strengthening of the social contract between higher education institutions and the society’s in which they are located and function within. It would also fundamentally re-orientate universities as a shared societal responsibility.  


The institutions of higher education would then have to operate on a fundamentally different basis; they would have to make themselves more relevant to society, as well as to become more interconnected within society as a whole. This could be a first significant step away from the commodification of education; the notion that universities should be “run as a business”. It could also help counter what has come to be known – in the pejorative sense – as “the professionalization of the university”. 


By making universities more directly dependent on society – and its broader ecology – and not just on its fees, private sector funders, private donor funders and government funds, it might be possible to shift universities into new behavioural modes and initiate the transition towards a different – essentially historically, culturally and economically decolonised university, and higher education sector in the long term.


Reorienting institutions of higher education within society, in terms of its functions, processes, controls, organisations, platforms and identity, may require the ‘university’ to share more of itself with society; from its land, to its property, technologies, learning platforms (such as libraries) and so forth. Why is it that it is so rare that ‘university’ libraries are outright shared with the public, for example? When universities see themselves as predominantly national and regional facilities, located within particular local contexts that it should play a full role within, then a new model of university might start to emerge.


Leadership and Transformative Change:


We need to be able to envision this future. We need to imagine it as a reality; living breathing, functioning physically, ‘processually’ and holistically as a public space. We need to place ourselves within the reality we seek to create; the role of learning in society need to embrace a bold multidimensional role. “Why not build universities in the slums? Within twenty years they will no longer be slums; they will be viable neighbourhoods” one representative of Medellin City begged of me, rhetorically, at a conference of city mayors from across the world that I once attended. 


We need Vice Chancellors and leaders in education that are “Enrique Penalosa’s[2]” of education; people who have the vision to enable a new future for South African institutions of higher learning, to bring about a true evolution of them, and to thereby revolutionise how it relates to society and is located within it. 


At a more practical level, they can take the lead in streamlining university bureaucracies and changing the way they interact with students and the public. The dismissive, inefficient, insensitive university bureaucracy – where ironically administration staff are often paid more than academics – needs to become a thing of the past.


University bureaucracies require radical interventions to disentangle them and make them student – and academic – facing, because currently they appear to take little responsibility, even for the very administrative tasks it is tasked with; hence the widespread wholesale internal outsourcing of administrative and project management duties to overburdened and stressed academics themselves. 


They can also embrace ICT the way it is supposed to be used i.e. to increase efficiency, transparency and use-ability. Instead, many universities adopted ICT systems while retaining paper trails because their policies required it. This means that instead of ICT improving efficiencies, it acts as an add-on to existing paper-based systems. Moreover, different departments all appear to have different administration systems, financial systems etc. This is clearly a terrible waste of money and resources and is an area in which savings can be made to the benefit of the university. 


Universities can also expand their fee-based offerings to sectors of society that require skills development, vocational training and specialised education services. They already run a number of courses, etc. that target corporate, government and other institutions and organisations, and generate revenue from them. This is how a lot of institutes generate revenue, and it helps make them more relevant within society and to society’s challenges.


There are multiple challenges that need to be addressed, which require cooperation between different ministries and levels of governance. Take, for example, the phenomenon of students and gentrification. Students, and the areas they live and recreate in, are made safe, creative and invigorated through their presence, as well as becoming more economically active and viable as well. 

However, the attractiveness of student areas make them ideal sites for gentrification, which in turn drives rentals up, disproportionately affecting students (and their families) who cannot afford to absorb such price fluctuations in living expenses. Some kind of mechanism is required to protect students and their families from the forces of market speculation that render their household budgets precarious. This is clearly an area in which national, provincial and local governments can work together to develop policy innovations that enable a set of protections for students and their families from unregulated property market dynamics.


The state can also set up arrangements where public service can serve as avenues through which students ‘pay back’ their debt to a society that has funded their educations. This may yield a host of desirable emergent outcomes in public service institutions; primarily by populating their ranks with skilled young people who can generate new ideas and innovations in public service; something that is desperately needed in the staid, top-down styled public service bureaucracies that dominate the public sphere in South Africa. Moreover, youth unemployment is at an all-time high; yet one obvious entry point into employment – the state – has not been adequately utilised. Universities themselves and the private sector can also seek such arrangements. 


Young people who earn become valuable drivers of an economy; they consume, buy property, acquire assets and boost productivity. Saddling them with debt that they are likely to struggle to repay, especially when facing such high national unemployment levels, and structural factors that render them marginally fluid, often indebted, or precariously balanced between the two. Surely it is in the public good, and with multiple benefits for society – including; a healthy economic growth and an increased pace of socio-economic (i.e. class and racial) transformation, as well as a faster growing middle class that can counter inequality, renew the social contract – and stabilise the socio-political realm as a result.  


Access to debt free higher education is, in 21st Century South Africa, perhaps the most ambitious of national goals that South Africa can set itself. And if the majority of society – and especially the majority of the youth – come to feel that this is a matter of such high national significance, that it needs to be prioritised and resourced by the state in conjunction with other sectors in society, then surely it should, democratically, be raised as a priority of national significance worthy of focussed attention and coordinated action between different ministries and spheres of government, as well as the other sectors that make up society. If government departments and the private sector could work together to see us through a soccer world cup, surely they can focus on the goal of working towards free education for all? Or at least get started … 


Establishing Consensus – A Referendum:


The question of rendering institutions of higher learning as objects of state-aided entities that enjoy widespread philanthropic support, in order to service a key national priority, could be decided by referendum. Indeed; what stops us from holding a national debate and referendum on the issue? Given the levels of disruption and uncertainty prevailing over the future of the institutions of higher education, perhaps a referendum could help bring about a sense of agreement within society as a whole. Free education was promised in 1994 and pledged at the ANC’s Polokwane conference in 2007, so even the ruling party have a vested interest in raising its profile as a national priority. It is difficult to understand why this option has not yet been proposed, either by government or student activists. It is a democratic step forward towards obtaining consensus and establishing the way forward. 


The precedent that a referendum would set in decision-making over issues of national priority is worth considering. It would establish a framework for; debating the importance of universal free access to education, proposing ideas for how it could be achieved, and on what conditions, and brokering consensus by drawing on broad-based public interaction. This can have far-reaching long term implications for how decisions are made over national resources, and what role the public can play in them. 


The Future – A Transformed State and Society:


How the higher education sector transforms itself, over the next five years, will determine what kind of future it has in the medium and long-terms in South Africa. The crisis within it has been brewing for the past two decades of democratic rule, but has roots in the Apartheid society that the ‘new’ South Africa inherited. What is clear, is that even providing free education is not enough to actualise the decolonisation of the university – as a resource of the commons, one whose existence is for the public good – rather, a radical re-imagining of the university is necessary. This can only occur if there are creative strategies that mobilise public support towards the goal of free education for all.


The greater implications of the transformation of this sector, is what it means for the other sectors in society. It may herald a transformation of the state, the private sector and civil society that otherwise may not have been adequately demonstrated as a working concept. It may mean that a wholly new politics is established in the South African political realm, and with it a wholly new polis that becomes its engine over time. It has the potential to spark a substantive transition that has multiplying effects in South African society in the medium to long terms.    



[1] Note that the ‘university’ and ‘higher education institutions’ are used interchangeably in this piece for simplicity, notwithstanding the detailed differences that can be raised regarding their capacities, roles and functions within society. 

[2] Enrique Penalosa was the mayor of Bogota in Columbia who radically re-envisioned public access for the majority poor through public transportation and urban design, and implemented it successfully.

Camaren Peter at 09:49



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It is the system itself that is violent


Sam Van Heerden says that if we do not see the hypocrisy in raging against damage done to property while being wholly indifferent to the violence enacted on human beings through structural injustice, then we are part of the problem.

Why are we more appalled by students damaging property than we are by the structural injustices against human beings? In fighting for free education, students are fighting back against the structural violence enacted on black bodies by the current political economy.

Structural violence caused by social and/or economic failings harm people by depriving them of their basic needs. Exclusion and poverty are violent conditions enacted by violent structures. This violence is real. The pain it causes is real.

For example, people who are economically disadvantaged are at greater risk for illness due to poor living conditions and unequal access to healthcare. People who are not treated equally in the eyes of the law because of their race or socioeconomic status have their bodily integrity violated – police brutality against black bodies being an example. If these can be linked to structural failings, they are instances of structural violence.

South Africa’s current neo-liberal policies and racial capitalism are culprits in maintaining this inequality in South Africa. The post-apartheid landscape has been unable to reconcile the inequalities of apartheid within these economic and political structures.

Structural violence is obscured because we see it every day. Poverty persists. In South Africa, it has been normalised. We have become so accustomed to the pervasive poverty in our country that we are more affected by a single burning bus than we are by a horizon of informal shack settlements. We have become desensitised to the pain it causes. This structural violence is far removed from our lived realities, so it becomes abstract; psychological distance obscures it from our view.

Perhaps this is why, despite our alleged awareness of and sympathy towards injustices, we become indignant when the trauma of persistent marginalisation and disenfranchisement translates into the concrete. Like “violent” protests against poor service delivery , or protests against exploitative labour practices as seen in Marikana. We forget about structural violence, and then we are shocked when its effects end up on our doorstep.

As Rhodes University economist David Fryer says, because of the way South African society is structured, education is one of the only gateways out of poverty. Graduate employment rates are high when compared to the rates of youth employment more generally. This is one of the many reasons why free higher education makes sense.

It may be just one among a myriad of issues, but change has to start somewhere. And it has to start now. Students are struggling against the inequalities rife both in our country and the world. They are essentially fighting against socioeconomic inequality, which is increasing globally. They are critiquing exploitative neoliberal labour practices, which in South Africa take the form of labour brokering, seen in protests against outsourcing. They are also taking oninstitutional racism, which is arguably still rife both locally, for example in university structures, and in issues such as police brutality in America.

But there must always be space for criticism, and through it, growth. As Richard Pithousefrom the Unit for Humanities at Rhodes University said: “Anyone who tells you that you shouldn’t have debate in your struggle, that you shouldn’t have critique, that you shouldn’t be able to raise questions about problematic behaviour, is really, really wrong. Things can go fundamentally wrong in any progressive space.”

Critics are right in some regards: damage to property hurts people because it often destroys the very resources that are being fought for. But to say this is to miss the point: physical violence is a symptom of structural violence. In the case of aggressive protests, the invisible gives rise to the visible; anger is the sound of pain shattering from long-term impact.

If we had been paying attention to structural violence all along, we would not be surprised, we would not be shocked that a generation of lower to upper middle class youths, born not free but shackled, are disillusioned with the current neo-liberal system and its politics of exclusion. Their frustration with the current state of things lingers like a foul odour that cannot be covered up by pepper-spray and half-hearted sympathies.

So while there must be space for criticism, it is important to guard against those who deconstruct without constructing anything in return. It is not a coincidence that those so utterly appalled by student violence on social media, those who condemn protesters, are often the same people who sit idly by and are indifferent to the injustices around them.

Nor is it a coincidence that the ministerial team established to address the higher education crisis consists of the ministers of police, state security, and defence and military veterans, but not the minister of finance, Pravin Gordhan. Gordhan’s possible retrenchment, following allegations of fraud over the approval of an employee’s early retirement, the laid by the National Prosecuting Authority, will send shockwaves through the country, especially for the marginalised.

The student protests turning violent have arguably had the unfortunate effect of giving the security cluster another excuse to expand their powers.

The coercive capacities of the state are slowly strengthening against an increasingly agitated citizenry. In the taxonomy of violence, the state’s hold on the monopoly on violence grows ever stronger.

I do not condone violence or destruction, and this serves as an act of interrogation rather than justification. But if we cannot see the hypocrisy in raging against damage done to property while being wholly indifferent to the violence enacted on human beings through structural injustice, then we are a part of the problem.

Violence is not only blood and soot, it manifests as indignity and disparity. It is all around us. You just have to disengage from your bourgeois comfort long enough to look. And if we did, maybe students would not have to burn things to get our attention.

Sam van Heerden is a Rhodes University student currently majoring in Politics, Philosophy and Journalism. Her other interests include photography, analysis and thinking big thoughts. She spends also spends an undue amount of time voicing her opinion on social media.


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Free education is possible if South Africa moves beyond smoke and mirrors 

South Africa’s universities are once again in uproar. Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande has outlined how higher education should deal with fee increments for 2017. His announcement sparked anger and a great deal of confusion.

Neither smoke from police stun grenades, burning buildings nor officialdom’s smoke and mirrors will solve the problem.

We’re surprised that many didn’t anticipate the fallout from Nzimande’s statement. There are several reasons for students’ anger toward the state and university managements.

The most immediate is that Nzimande’s statement dealt with fee increments but sidestepped the fundamental issue: an ongoing call to make higher education free for all.

It is clear to us that very little will be resolved without reference to this critical demand. All the minister has done is to kick the can further down the road, deepening students’ disquiet and provoking conflict on campuses.

It is disingenuous to scold students for “protecting the rich” and “increasing inequality” through their demands for universal quality education. The state cannot merely exhort citizens to patiently await an increase in economic growth and its trickle downward, while blaming “selfish” students for taking resources allocated elsewhere.

There are revenue sources that can be examined carefully and accessed to fund free education for all, at all levels. This can happen while other social needs are simultaneously met. The most important of these sources is raising more tax from the super rich and stopping the illicit outflow of capital.

Confusion and omissions

Nzimande had insisted that a special presidential fees commission deal with the issue of free education. The commission, which began its work in January 2016, is widely viewed as sluggish and unfocused. Its completion date has been shifted, and there have been complaints about its lack of transparency.

More importantly, the commission’s terms of reference are couched in the language of “feasibility”. Its mandate holds no clear and tangible commitment to exploring “fee free education”. In fact, how the commission’s mandate is understood is itself the subject of conflicting interpretations.

There were several other problems with Nzimande’s statement.

  1. The missing middle: there’s little understanding of what the minister’s announcement actually means for this group of students. Their parents earn too much money to qualify for loans from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), but not enough to afford university tuition without bank loans.

Some people interpreted Nzimande’s statement to mean that this group would be exempt from paying any fees. This is not true. They are merely exempt from the payment of any fee increases levied for 2017. They will continue to pay the same fees as they did in 2015 and 2016.

  1. Student debt: There was no clarity on the question of student debt.

The approach he outlined for funding students appears to favour student loans from the financial sector. This amounts to a further entrenchment of debt-related financing and profiteering by banking and other financial institutions. Students are particularly disquieted by this element of the statement. They continue to be lent money – a far cry from any concept of free education.

  1. The resource debate: Some commentators have argued that there simply isn’t any more money available for universities. They point out that there are many competing pressures on South Africa’s fiscus which must be balanced against students’ demands.

In fact, higher education in South Africa is chronically underfunded – the main reason why universities constantly increase fees. The country spends far less on this sector than many other developing countries. South Africa’s state budget for universities as a percentage of GDP is 0.75%. The Africa-wide average is 0.78%; the proportion of GDP for Senegal and Ghana is 1.4% and Cuba 4.5%.

South Africa’s higher education budget for the 2015/16 financial year is R30 billion. If the government were to spend 1% of GDP on higher education, this would amount to R41 billion. That’s almost four times the reported shortfall caused by 2016’s freeze on fee increases.

The argument about competing national demands can only be used if there’s an honest, open engagement around how and what public choices are made in the utilisation of resources. This includes examining wasteful and vanity projects as well as exploring how much is lost to malfeasance.

More importantly, it’s time for South Africans to have a serious, open discussion about the potential sources of such resources.

The super rich can pay

We are academics and researchers working at a range of South African universities. In our submission to the fees commission, we made it clear that one potential source is the super rich.

As we argued, a determined state should examine the structure of personal taxation which could be levied for the country’s top 10% of income earners.

This income bracket, together with High Net Worth Individuals – those who have an annual income of more than R7 million or R70 million in accumulated wealth – could generate a substantial increase in available public revenue to fund higher education.

Such an approach, which concentrates on the structural aspects of inequality and uses tax revenues for the purpose of higher education funding, is preferable to the idea of a differentiated approach to the “rich” and “poor”. It supports the idea that those identified with the top net worth pay for their children’s education through taxation, and the distribution of public funds, rather than through an individually-based “wealthy user pays” model.

This is a more democratic model of public interest and public funding than individual philanthropy or subsidy, which is not sustainable.

We are also opposed to the idea of a graduate tax. That too will have racially differential impacts on graduates from vastly different class, gendered and social backgrounds. Some graduates also have more accumulated family and other responsibilities than others, making such a tax an enormous burden.

Road map to free education

We urge the Ministry of Higher Education and Training to immediately set in motion a process which will show its determination to meet the promise of “free education for all”.

It should set out the concrete times frames for its achievements, its immediate and further milestones; as well as the mechanism by which this process will be monitored, especially by students and their accepted representatives. Without such a road map to universal free education, there is little prospect that the present conflict will abate.

The ministry, in setting up this road map, must engage fully with as broad an array of students as is possible. It needs to work beyond the extant formal structures of representation which are likely to be ineffective for the purpose.

We would also like to urge university vice chancellors, working together with students, to call public assemblies for engaging with institutions’ most affected communities. This will elicit greater public understanding and democratic dialogue.


  1. Director of the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation and Associate Professor of Education, University of Johannesburg

  2. Researcher, Social Sciences, University of Fort Hare

  3. PhD Scholar, Wits School of Education, University of the Witwatersrand

  4. Senior Researcher in Labour Studies and Education, University of Johannesburg

  5. Chief Director: Tshwane University of Technology – Institute for Economic Research on Innovation; Node Head: DST/NRF SciSTIP CoE; and Professor Extraordinary: Stellenbosch University – Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology., Tshwane University of Technology

  6. Researcher at the Centre for Integrated Post-School Education and Training, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University