MCEBO DLAMINI: Should we tell matriculants the truth about tertiary education?


In a taxi on the freeway, windows are sweating and people are squeezed inside almost to a point of suffocating. A red Porsche passes our taxi. We all follow the roaring sound of the car as it shuffles through the traffic. The licence plate at the back of the Porsche reads “NO DEGREE”. A subtle, nuanced but loud statement is made by this licence plate. The driver is simply saying that he bought the car without having a tertiary institution degree. The implication is that it is highly possible to make it financially without education. A radical interpretation of this statement is that education is useless.

Considering all these ideas, what then do we say to matriculants who are commencing with their exams? Do we encourage them to study? Or do we tell them the gruesome truth about the problems with tertiary education in this country?

Each and every year we bid good luck to matriculants and engage in all sorts motivational escapades to stress the importance of going to tertiary institutions, whether they be universities or colleges. We do this ritual without mentioning the problems that are presented by what we call tertiary education.

When we remind black matriculants to work hard, we do not tell them that no matter how hard they work, they will be alienated when they get to university. We do not tell them that the colour of their skin will become a barrier to a number of opportunities. Some of them will learn what being black means when they get to university. And I think they should know that these universities are mostly concerned with teaching them how to be workers and functionaries, not owners. These universities will disconnect them from their societies, leaving them with a double consciousness. As Thebe Kgositsile states, these universities will leave them “too white for the black kids and too black for the white kids”.

Unemployment among graduates continues to increase. Although attending university might increase one's chances of getting employed, the reality is that it is not guaranteed. What is guaranteed is a lifetime debt for students who take loans to study at tertiary level. Where graduates do get employed, they will spend the rest of their days running the affairs of white people (the bosses). It is at this point that I say universities teach us how to be sophisticated slaves.

Of course, there are exceptions. But the truth is that South African universities have not done enough to transform or change the condition of our people. It has failed to provide its students with knowledge that will solve the problems of society. They should not be exonerated. All institutions have a role to play and universities in South Africa have not been made to account.

So the driver of the red Porsche knows something - the question is whether or not we want to hear it. Our education system is broken because we do not learn what will make our society better in the future. If we have been, black people would not be dealing with same problems that they had dealt with during apartheid. If this had been improved, we would not have so many graduates who are sitting in townships doing nothing.

It cannot be that a person who has worked hard to study, accumulated debt and almost suffocated by an alienating environment has to go back to rot in the township. Something has to be done. We can no longer act oblivious by encouraging matriculants to go to university when we know that there are problems where they are going.

The only way we are going to be able to solve some of these problems is to acknowledge that they are there. We must stop portraying the university as a perfect place. We must tell the children the truth. That way they go there knowing into what kind of environment they are entering. They attend it knowing that there are structural challenges that might defer their dreams. Awareness is important, as it prevents them from becoming depressed when what is promised is not given.

We need to think critically about education and its value in society, and assess whether or not our education system has any tangible value. The matriculants must fight, here and beyond, but victory is still not guaranteed.

Mcebo Dlamini is a former leader of student protests at Wits University.

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