Cape Town – Top government officials, economists, political analysts and student activists have warned that we face “our worst nightmare” as the country counts the cost of damage to the economy, the impact on services for millions of South Africans, and the country’s image if almost 200 000 tertiary students do not graduate this year.
On Saturday the Ministry of Higher Education and Training warned of major knock-on effects on society if the students do not complete the tertiary academic cycle by graduating. This followed another week of violent protests which have turned campuses into war zones.
“The consequences of not saving the academic programme will be dire, therefore all of us must collectively work together to save the academic programme,” said Harold Maloka, spokesman for Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande.
Maloka said the system expected to graduate 190 000 students this year, the majority of whom would have been entering the labour market next year. They include doctors, teachers, nurses, engineers, accountants and lawyers.
“The lack of new graduates entering the labour market will severely hamper many services rendered to critical areas including clinical services linked to pharmacy, nursing, medical, community services, legal services and engineering projects,” he said.
Protest-related damage to buildings and other critical infrastructure was not the only collateral damage, he said.
“Some resources, especially those that include historical documents that were lost at the Howard College Campus law library at UKZN are irreplaceable and cannot be put to monetary value,” Maloka said.
Economists pointed to the student protests as “yet another source of volatility and uncertainty” in the governance crisis facing South Africa.
“It goes to show, yet again, that the government has lost its moral authority and its leadership efficacy. The issues are left to brew for too long and not addressed,” said Dr Iraj Abedian, chief executive of Pan African Investment and Research.
Abedian said the damage to “soft infrastructure” is far more serious and consequential. “Such damages include aspects such as the confidence in the management of universities, quality of education, standards of various curricula and the quality of professional academics.”
He said the protests had delivered a serious blow to the country’s image. “This has confirmed the worst nightmare of the development partners/investors. It has shown the inability of the political leadership to choose its priorities, to focus on sustainable solutions and to lead with moral and technical authority. Most important in this complex equation is the perceptions of the local business community. Until the local business and consumer sectors show confidence, the global partners are not going to change their views of the country.”
The damage wrought by the ongoing protests was also brought into focus by civil society groups working towards social cohesion.
Stan Henkeman, executive director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, said the costs of the protests would hit the poor hardest, as many families would now be deprived of relief from grinding poverty.
“The current damage assessment of the #FeesMustFall protests may be more than R750 million, but there is a greater cost which is coming,” Henkeman said.
He also warned the consequences would also fall to the next generation.
“The students have not thought of the next generation, they are robbing the next generation of an education.
“Students must be challenged with this, they are losing public support because of lack of foresight,” he said.
However, not all students support the violence and destruction.
“We cannot condone the destruction of the infrastructure we will need for our education and development,” said Melcome Mahlathini, national chairman of the student chapter of the Black Management Forum.
In his final year of his BCom law degree at Unisa, Mahlathini said he was concerned he may not graduate. “Like many others, I am very frustrated at the possibility of losing the year, because our families were hoping for relief.”
He criticised the government for “acting ignorant and dragging its feet” and called on the corporate world to set up a special education fund, to be administered with the government.