‘We may be free, but we’re still held in chains by student debt’
While Fees Must Fall activist Bonginkosi Khanyile says much has been achieved in 25 years, but there's still a long way to go
Fees Must Fall activist Bonginkosi Khanyile says he is drowning in student debt.
At the dawn of democracy, 25 years ago, it would have cost him R6,600 to study towards a Bachelor of Social Science degree at the University of Cape Town.
Today the same course will set you back R56,320.
Although UCT did note that the fees 25 years ago did not take into account value-added services such as the bus service and bandwidth now offered at the university, for many students like Khanyile the price of education is just too high.
It was against this backdrop that he and thousands of university students took to the streets demanding free education during the 2015/16/17 Fees Must Fall movement.
“The fees are very exorbitant, it is what we have always been fighting for. Education must not be made a commodity, it must not be made as something to sell, because if you look at higher education in particular, it is a commodity, it works on a supply-and-demand system. It is not made a public good but rather it is made a private good,” said Khanyile.
Khanyile, 29, currently owes the Durban University of Technology close to R26,000 for his BTech in public management and economics, while R126,000 is owed to the University of KwaZulu-Natal where he recently graduated with an honours degree in social sciences.
“I was unable to get either of my qualifications at both these universities because I owe so much,” he said.
Following a wave of student protests, former president Jacob Zuma announced in 2017 that education would be free, but not for all. Education would be free for students with an annual household income of below R350,000 (despite recommendations to the contrary by a commission of inquiry), but not those with an income of between R350,000 and R600,000.
This created the “missing middle” – students who are not poor enough to qualify for free tertiary education but also cannot afford it.
Khanyile said much progress had been made by the Fees Must Fall generation in that more poor young people were accessing education, but there was still a long way to go.
“As a Fees Must Fall generation, we have been able to get a few victories whereby more people are accessing education, but the struggle must continue. Education must be made a public good, the curriculum must be commodified. Currently, it’s highly costly; there are students who aren’t paying and the institutions keep making education extremely expensive,” said Khanyile.
“I do not become a doctor of the Khanyile family, I do not become a teacher of the Khanyile family. I become a teacher, a doctor and a civil engineer for the country,” he added.
Khanyile is currently serving a three-year house arrest sentence after being found guilty of public violence‚ failing to comply with police instruction and possession of a dangerous weapon in August 2018. The charges stem from his participation in the 2016 Fees Must Fall protest at the Durban University of Technology.
He said that despite having his freedom limited owing to his involvement in Fees Must Fall, it was worth it.
“I am not complaining. From time to time you will have mixed emotion. Your freedom has been taken away, you can’t be where you choose. But when you look at the pain you are going through versus what you have reaped – young people are accessing education and they are hungry for it. Those things are worth celebrating,” he said.
Khanyile said he hoped that in another 25 years the country’s education system would be more Afrocentric.
“Twenty-five years from now I want to see a curriculum that speaks of our own language, vision, and imagination. It must speak of Africa whereby African problems have African solutions, where you don't learn about American economic problems while trying to resolve South African economic issues.”