VOICES

Good Riddance To 2016, But Politics, #Fees And Race Remain

The last 12 months were tough on all South Africans. Let's celebrate the end of the year, but question our civic consciousness.

31/12/2016 13:57 SAST | Updated 31/12/2016 15:21 SAST
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Wits University stand outside the Great Hall during the #FeesMustFall protests on October 10, 2016 in Johannesburg. There were running battles between police and protestors where a bus was set alight and police used stun grenades, teargas and rubber bullets.

The past year was, by most South Africans' accounts, a rough passage.

It was an overtly political year, where the governing party faced a particularly turbulent 12 months, a year in which we came to seriously fear for the sustainability and integrity of our universities and a year in which fragile race relations regularly sent the Twittersphere into overdrive.

It was an overtly political year, where the governing party faced a particularly turbulent 12 months.

Add to that the stagnant economy, higher unemployment and rising living costs, and it won't be a stretch to suggest we all want 2016 to bugger off and leave us be.

Next year, 2017, will be a year in which us South Africans will again be tested.

During the last 12 months the political tectonic plates have shifted under our feet, upsetting convention and challenging a dominant status quo. The new year's agenda, like previous years, will be determined by the last weeks of the previous year: state capture, Jacob Zuma, the African National Congress' (ANC)loss of electoral support and the all-consuming race to be new ANC leader will dominate our national discourse in the foreseeable future.

But there are other issues which will no doubt loom large during the first weeks of 2017 that will not only demand our attention, but which will force all of us to play our active parts as citizens.

But there are other issues which will no doubt loom large during the first weeks of 2017 that will not only demand our attention, but which will force all of us to play our active parts as citizens.

A functioning, credible and competitive tertiary education sector is an absolute non-negotiable feature of our civic landscape if we are to succeed where other post-revolution or post-colonial African societies have failed. We have been battling with the question of how to create opportunities for young, talented and excluded South Africans to go and get a degree – but 18 months after #RhodesMustFall we are still not clear how we are going to achieve that.

University principals like Adam Habib (University of the Witwatersrand) and Max Price (University of Cape Town) have tried, by way of sliding-scale proposals and funding innovations, to help the so-called "missing middle" (students too poor to qualify for loans, but too rich to receive support) and to broaden access. Other universities though, like the Universities of the Free State and Stellenbosch, are embroiled in attempts from the establishment to limit access through language privilege.

And in the midst of this, government is nowhere to be found. Treasury have put forward the reality of our fiscal position and the options available, but President Jacob Zuma and his minister of higher education, Blade Nzimande, have been missing in action in the quest for a practical, progressive and sustainable compromise – because that's what it's going to have to be. Free tertiary education won't happen in our lifetime. South Africa simply cannot afford it.

President Jacob Zuma and his minister of higher education, Blade Nzimande, have been missing in action in the quest for a practical, progressive and sustainable compromise – because that's what it's going to have to be.

Beyond #FeesMustFall, it has become clear #WeNeedToTalkAboutRace. We – all of us – are struggling to make sense of each other and how to relate to people who don't look like us. There's a creeping frustration all over, with the reaction on all sides (how many sides are there?) to the Penny Sparrows of our republic illustrating we need to stop shouting, and we need to talk more.

Why is there so much latent anger among a portion of the black youth? Why can't certain people not understand what structural racism is? Why are other people retreating into cultural laagers and is this causing a hardening of attitudes? Let's talk, but more importantly, let's listen.

Of course, we are not immune to international developments, with the rising tides of identity politics and conservatism in Europe having spilt over to the United States, which will be made "great again" by Donald Trump, a politician who shamelessly uses ethnic mobilisation, racism and misogyny to advance his political causes.

Of course, we are not immune to international developments, with the rising tides of identity politics and conservatism in Europe having spilt over to the United States.

Even though some might regard the resurgence of nationalism as misplaced and dangerous, we will be remiss if we disregard the fact that many, also in this country, feel betrayed and exploited by the establishment – whether it is government, business or the media. South Africans in positions of authority and power will have to question their civic consciousness and responsibilities if they want to remain relevant and influential. Otherwise they might, too, be swept away when the revolt comes.

But, for now, let's celebrate that we've survived and bid 2016 auld lang syne!

PS: One wish for 2017: please – please – can the Springboks and Bafana follow the Proteas's example and sort themselves out?