The South African Student protests: Challenging the Broader Issue of Inequality

Approximately 50% of South African children who enroll in grade 1 do not make it to grade 12 and only 12% qualify for university. The ’Fees Must Fall’ campaign constitutes a bigger issue than just tuition fees. The real concern is the lack of equal opportunities among South Africa´s population. While higher education is not for everyone, equal access to it should be. Merit rather than money should constitute the key to ones future.

In July 1993 Nelson Mandela addressed South Africa´s Trade Union Congress stating that: “If the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government.”

Students protesting outside Jameson Hall at the University of Cape Town      Photograph by: Renata Bossi
Students protesting outside Jameson Hall at the University of Cape Town                                                Photograph by: Renata Bossi

The latest weeks of uprisings illustrate many students’ clear and unified discontent with the ANC government, and Mandela´s message might just as well have been addressed towards them. The planned increase of tuition fees at universities has obviously proven to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Hence, it is legitimate to pose the question if the current unrest is an analogy of the classic Orwellian story, where the liberator has become the villain.

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, among many, branded the ANC as a terrorist organization, undermining a rightful opposition towards a racist and oppressive regime.  However, the condemnation today does not come from right wing Western world leaders, but from the subjects the ANC once fought to  protect: the underprivileged non-white South African population. While one must remember and respect the ANC for its pivotal contribution to democracy in South Africa, one must also realize that past actions do not even up for being put on a pedestal forever. After all, in a democracy, legitimacy for political power correlates with the capability to acknowledge the needs of the people you represent. Regarding an equal opportunity to higher education, the ANC has failed its subjects. The current unrest is not simply about unreasonable tuition fees. The real issue is the lack of equal access to continuous and long-term higher education among the South African population. Black South Africans are still underrepresented within academia even though they constitute 80% of the population. The structural oppression lives on even though the ANC has had political power for 21 years.

Article 26 in the United Nation´s Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not state that higher education necessarily shall be free but that it “shall be equally accessible on the basis of merit”. The tuition fees in themselves therefore have become the cause for unequal access to higher education. Free tertiary education is not an unrealistic or utopian demand and it does not only exist in European countries like Germany, Norway, and Sweden. In both Russia and Brazil, South Africa´s fellow BRICS partners, free university education is a possibility. Even so, structural segregation determines who will be able to attend universities without paying tuition. The Atlantic´s article “Brazil: Where Free Universities Largely Serve the Wealthy” from April this year, clearly illustrates this problem.

The South African student protests of 2015 should be seen as an opportunity for the whole country. South Africa could take a leading role among the BRICS countries, illustrating that equality should be a priority, not only among countries, which is the ground on which BRICS was founded in the first place, but also among people within the member countries of BRICS.

Student holding up a sign criticizing Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and Training in South Africa       Photograph by: Renata Bossi
Student holding up a sign criticizing Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and Training in South Africa
Photograph by: Renata Bossi

From a budget perspective this would be feasible and the South African government is aware of this. In 2012 Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande received a report from an expert group, set up by the government, concluding that introducing free university education for the poor is realistic from a financial perspective. Therefore free tertiary education is not by definition just for countries like Germany, Norway, and Sweden. If South Africa would introduce free tertiary education, it could be a benchmark towards which other BRICS countries could be pushed to compare themselves to. With approximately 40% of the world´s university students, the BRICS countries could definitely be a major force for global change regarding tuition fees for higher education. As a member of BRICS, South Africa has the opportunity to be the country initializing this process.

However, South African´s should not limit themselves to focus only on higher education, because access to higher education in itself is preordained by money rather than merit. Further attention needs to be addressed towards the general issue of deficiency regarding the implementation of the right to education on all levels. In a report from 2013, Nicholas Spaull from the Centre for Development and Enterprise argues “that there is an on-going crisis in South African education, and that the current system is failing the majority of South Africa´s youth”. Spaull further argues that South Africa has the worst education system of all middle income countries. 50% of the students that enroll in grade 1 will not make it to grade 12 and only 12% will qualify for university.

Striving for free university education is a noble cause that needs to continue, but the 88% that never qualify for university needs to be included in the struggle. Higher education is not for everyone but the equal opportunity should be and merit rather than money should constitute the key to ones future.

The anti-mafia movement: A fight with many faces

The anti-mafia movement: A fight with many faces

As I enjoy an espresso and a cigarillo in a tiny coffee bar in the old quarters of Palermo I look out over the streets where the number of vespas and tourists are countless. Somehow the modern aspects of Sicily´s capital seem distant and out of place in a context where the historical and cultural heritage has much more of an impact on me. Narrow alleys with lines of swaying laundry hanging across the streets gives a genuine atmosphere of historical presence.

The Cosa Nostra is as old as many of the buildings surrounding me and has endured in Sicily since the middle of the 19th century.  Together with four students from Gothenburg and approximately thirty young representatives from other EU countries, I am here for the Erasmus+ programme Hand in Hand Against Mafia with the aim of promoting democratic values and combating organized crime within European society. It is a fact that organized crime is a common concern for several European nations and therefore initiatives like these are of high value. Libera Palermo, the organization behind this project, is a local entity of the national organization Libera, which is working on several fronts to combat organized crime. Promoting the raising of minimum salaries and organizing events for companies and other actors to come together and share experiences on how one might handle extortion and other forms of harassment, are only a few examples of Libera´s work. Structural changes in society may be of vital importance since it might prevent the incentive for low-income earners to consider organized crime movements as a way of securing their rightful “piece of the pie”. This is especially crucial in the case of the younger generation, which is mainly the target for recruitment by the Mafia.

Weronika Perlinski (2)
Photo: Weronika Perlinski

Teatro Massimo, where the final scenes from the Godfather Part III took place is located a few blocks away from where I am sitting. On one level the Cosa Nostra seems absent whereas the effect of the Mafia´s presence is an intrinsic part of Palermo and Sicilian society. Just across the street from where I am sitting the building is beautifully decorated with graffiti. As in other parts of the world graffiti serves as a form in which to challenge power, and in Sicily the main power to challenge is the Cosa Nostra. This graffiti painting fully serves this purpose, illustrating an octopus with its tentacles spreading in all directions, a symbol of the Cosa Nostra and its damaging effect on Sicilian society. Talking with local Sicilians, some will give you a hint of what the Mafia is capable of. Extortion, in the form of having to pay protection money, is common for most business owners. The extortion money paid to the Mafia is labelled pizzo and if a business owner does not pay it a friend might visit arguing the benefit of paying the pizzo, in the business owner´s best interests. If the money is still not paid a smashed window or glue in the keyhole might be the next step taken by the Cosa Nostra. Direct interaction with the victims is preferable to avoid exposure.

The image of the Mafia during the last decades has in many cases served as fictional romance. Generations have been brought up with an image of the Mafia, portrayed through fictive characters such as Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano. The gap between fiction and reality is significant. Our extravagant anti-heroes do engage in illegal activities, such as smuggling, extortion and murder, but what separates them from real Mafiosi is that they convey the aura of romance. Real Mafiosi such as Salvatore “Totto” Riina, John Gotti and Bernardo Provenzano do not uphold the same ambiance as their counterparts on our TV screens. Riina, often described as one of the most ruthless Mafioso of all time, was responsible for the death of 100-200 people, including the two anti-mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paulo Borsellino.

Except for the Cosa Nostra in Siciliy, the main Italian Mafia organizations consists of the Ndrangheta in Calibria, the Sacra Corona Unita in Apulia and the Camorra around the city of Naples. While many believe that the Mafia is here to stay with its tentacles deep in Italian institutions and political life Carina Gunnarsson from Uppsala University, an expert in the field of anti-mafia work, argues that the anti-mafia movement is a major force to be taken into consideration, even if their efforts seem to get little attention in media. Since the 1980s a strong movement among the civic society has stood up towards the Mafia. While there have been civic forces fighting the Mafia since the 1860s, the movement has moved from the countryside and is now mainly driven by an urban educated middle class. The grassroots movement Addiopizzo is an archetype portraying the fight. During the last decade it has achieved a clear impact. By working together with business owners, who do not want to pay the pizzo, they hit the Cosa Nostra on an economic level and prove that standing up towards organized crime is possible. The fact that the initiative was taken by five young activists in 2004 illustrates that actions made by just a few people can have a major impact. The organization´s motto is “A whole people who pays the pizzo is a people without dignity”. While the initiative is brave as well as bold, it is highly dependent on socially conscious motivated consumers.

Weronika Perlinski (1)
Photo: Weronika Perlinski

Since the 1990s the Cosa Nostra has followed a strategy where the organization´s aim is to keep a low profile. Some might argue that the public outcry after 1992, when the two anti-mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were brutally murdered by the Cosa Nostra, has forced the Mafia into this strategy. Others would argue that peace only certifies the effectiveness of the Mafia where the use of violence is an indication of weakness. What is obvious is that more than 20 years later the situation with the Cosa Nostra has changed radically.

Initiatives to counteract organized crime have been taken by the Italian government for decades, but for a long time the Christian Democrats in Rome had links with the same forces that they argued they wanted to get rid of. To what degree the Mafia still has connections amongst politicians, law enforcement agencies and other institutions is difficult to comment upon, but it is clear that civic society may have a significant role to play because government strategies have not been sufficient. While the Mafia is still a taboo topic among many Sicilians others have decided to take action. Allessandro is one of them. After one of his family members was shot dead in the streets of Palermo he has been dedicated to fight organized crime. Civilian bystanders with no connection to the Mafia might become victims just because they are in the way. A common technique for Mafia members is namely to move among civilians, serving as shields against the police or other Mafia sections competing for economic influence or power. Allessandro is not alone in his struggle. The anti-mafia organization Agenda Rossa has the aim of protecting people who are at risk of being victimised by the Mafia. By organizing large manifestations functioning as a ”bulletproof vest”, Agenda Rossa therefore prevents assassinations carried out by the Mafia, using the same method as the Mafia.

What is evident is the fact that presently civic society constrains the position of the Mafia to a certain degree, not only by a few strong front figures such as Falcone and Borsellino, but by a large number of ordinary citizens who have decided that they are no longer willing to be compromised in their daily lives. The struggle takes many forms and minor efforts might just constitute “a drop in the ocean”, but as long as they are somehow connected they represent a major force. What is even more important to remember is the fact that organized crime is not just limited to southern Italy but also an increasing issue in several other European countries. Therefore governments and civic society all around Europe should sense the importance of acting against organized crime.


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