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Margie Orford: Higher education is at a point of crisis

By Margie Orford, written for Issue 3 2016 of the newsletter to the PEN SA membership

Student Protests

PEN South Africa has been watching the unfolding scene at our universities with rising alarm at the polarisation of debate around transformation and race and the accompanying violence and destruction. We have been distressed by the retreat of leadership and a devastating failure of imagination in addressing the very real problems about access to education.

The lack of foresight by those concerned with higher education – and here Minister Blade Nzimande must be held accountable – and others in government in not foreseeing the impact the much larger numbers of successful matriculants would have on university accommodation and other resources and on the ability of students to pay has been disastrous. Accompanying these educational survival issues are other grave challenges about representation – political, literary and artistic – and language in our diverse and fractured society. Very deep class and racial antagonism has flared up on all of South Africa’s campuses and they have revealed, brutally at times, the unresolved violences and exclusions of South Africa’s past.

That we are at a point of crisis is clear. What we do with this crisis is crucial and will define the next decades of South Africa as the negotiated settlement that ushered in our constitutional democracy defined the last 20 years. Difficult as it might seem this is the moment in which South Africa can and must be rebuilt in the image of a future that has a place for everyone.

PEN stands for freedom of expression and the free transmission of ideas. To put it most simply this means a dialogue in which listening is as important as speaking. This is not the first time in history that people have found themselves at this pass in South Africa, in Africa and in the world. Repression has been one way in which protest has been dealt with – and that would be the worst possible outcome. There are other ways and we – as writers and as South Africans – are citizens of a hard-won constitutional democracy which has defined itself by being able to imagine a future based on inclusion and human rights. Our history left many scars.

Old wounds have been reopened with regard to the emotive questions of language to the unfinished business of nation-building, the flag, the compromises made in South Africa’s transition to democracy, the dire state of the economy where the gulf between rich and poor, black and white has remained almost unchanged, and the fact that languages of power continue to be English and Afrikaans.

This is a time for questions. Here are just some of the questions that have been brought into sharp focus by the incendiary events on our campuses.

How do we ensure that languages other than English and Afrikaans are given power to stand on their own in trade and commerce and the sciences?

Should “Business” promote the use of other languages thus taking our cue from PEN International’s Girona Manifesto which sets out the right to mother tongue?

Should legislators contribute towards the creation of leveled playing fields with regard to language through real and sustained support of mother tongue education and reading?

Why aren’t we seeing these problems in other parts of Africa?

What is the meaning to this mixed community we call South Africans of the country named after a geographic position?

Do we need to rethink the name of the country, choose a new anthem and forget the illusion of reconciliation and rainbow nationalism?

How do we deal with the troubled history of public art and representations of a brutal and exploitative history?

How will we imagine another future and how should it be scripted?

What image do we have of ourselves in this future?

What is next and how do we move forward after the venting of student anger has resulted in the burning of buildings, the petrol-bombing of a vice-chancellor’s office and the closure of a university?

These are tough questions but they need to be answered, if we are to start addressing our issues as a people. A number of astute writers have addressed this crisis. These voices – from Sisonke Msimang, Mike van Graan, Pierre de Vos, Panashe Chigumadzi, Lovelyn Chidinma Nwadeyi, Angelo Fick, Jonathan Jansen, Nic Spaull & Debra Shepherd, Breyten Breytenbach, Evita Bezuidenhout and Brian Kamanzi – express a range of views. These responses and the many others that are being published are the foundations of this vital national conversation. Words are important, the tolerance of the expression of a diversity of views is as important.

Much of the fury expressed in the last weeks and months has legitimate origins because of the tenacity of discrimination and privilege and a failure of leadership to address these problems. Guns are not a solution, shooting at students is not a solution. Talking and writing and listening can be. It has been done in this country before and it needs to be done again.

Margie Orford
President, PEN South Africa

(Image courtesy of Don’t Party)


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