Free education, free speech and responsibility.

Is Free Higher Education Possible in South Africa Panel Discussion                                                         Chaired by Judge Dennis Davis

‘Who is in the room?’ Activist Lindsay Maasdorp would ask this of the audience several times throughout his opening address. With a judge and a university vice chancellor on the panel and a R40 barrier of entry into the discussion space, Maasdorp was criticising the exclusivity and reaffirmation of privilege in spaces such as Think!Fest. Neither Maasdorp nor anyone else in the room could have anticipated that this issue would manifest itself dramatically in response to his original question; ‘Who is in the room?’

The full audio, as well as comments from the panellists can be found below.


The debate began with opening statements from the panellists.

David Fryer (Economic and Economic History Department of Rhodes University)

‘Although I am an economist, I’ll say that always, politics is far more important than economics. Economics is just (what is possible), and even then politics is really often the thing that is stopping something from coming into being that is economically quite possible. And with regard to higher education, I think that is the case. ‘

‘Politically we often hear that the student movements are unrepresentative, they are a small group, and therefore they lack legitimacy. I’m going to say let’s just take that right off the table, because higher education is a right. Free education is actually a constitutional right.’

‘There is a reasonableness clause, but that isn’t a get out of jail free card. That is saying ‘Do your best.’ It’s not saying ‘Give it a bash.’’

‘Who is bringing it forward is not relevant. The Constitution even trumps Parliament. And it certainly trumps a group of academics. We can’t as Rhodes come together and say ‘our stakeholders have decided not to change the name of the university.’ University is a public good, we can’t do something that excludes all those right-less people who can’t access the university.’

Enver Motala (Researcher at the Nelson Mandela Institute at the University of Fort Hare, and associated with the Education Policy Consortium)

‘In our view free higher education for all is possible, it’s realistic and it’s necessary.’

‘You start with the fundamental question… of what kind of society we want, what kind of education, what citizenship, what democracy and what purposes of education are the starting point. We don’t start with the discredited ideas of human capital theory and its associated ideas about cost and benefit and rates of return. We think that is the wrong place to start.’

‘We also think that the real choice is between the global phenomenon of the marketisation of education which has led to a contribution to the present… global barbarism about what is happening to human societies and the commodification of education driven by corporate profit making (and) powerful institutions globally.’

Dr. Sizwe Mabizela (Vice Chancellor of Rhodes University)

‘My two starting points are the following.

One: No academically deserving should be deprived of an opportunity to acquire quality higher education simply because he or she is born into a family of meagre means.’

‘Secondly: Paying for higher education should not be seen as an expenditure but as an investment.’

‘Free higher education for all, as an aspirational goal, is possible.’

‘In short, it is in a socially just, equitable, caring and compassionate society that free education for all can be achieved.’

‘Funding of higher education is a complex and multi-dimensional challenge. We should therefore guard against simple or simplistic solutions to this challenge.’

‘I find the framing question ‘Is Free Higher Education Possible in South Africa’ rather narrow and limiting… It lends itself to binarism, it’s an all or nothing, yes or no, which as we know is hardly adequate to deal with difference.’

Lindsay Maasdorp (Activist)

‘Who is in the room? Who is on the panel?’

‘We are talking about free education, but we pay to get in here. If you think of this panel discussion as an opportunity to think and learn, the same as the institution is, just think of it in the same context. We’re talking about free education, but we couldn’t even allow people to come here for free. It’s not about the possibility, it’s about the will.’

‘When we talk about free education, we talk about liberation.’

‘Imagine we invested in education for these poor people… Imagine we told Johann Rupert ‘Hey, your time is up. We want our land back.’ Imagine we owned the mineral wealth. Imagine we decentralised education to the extent where people learn to move society forward, not to get jobs.’

‘We must be honest with ourselves here. We are caressing our egos. We are making ourselves feel nice… Some of the panellists are my enemies. Because they sustain the status quo. And we must be clear about these things. So I must ask you personally… What are you willing to give? What are you willing to fight for as an individual for free education?’

‘So we must understand, if we are going to move society forward, one: Free black-centred Socialist education. Meaning, we must target land and economics, take back our country and then create a society where black people can enjoy simple things like learning so we can move society forward at a practical level.’

Who is in the room?

After the opening statements, Judge Davis directed questions at each of the panellists, pressing them to qualify some of their positions before handing over to questions from the audience.

One audience member questioned the commitment of Rhodes Vice Chancellor Mabizela to protect students who faced academic exclusion. Another point raised was the failure of the panel to reflect both the demographics of those directly involved in student movements as well as the framing of the question of free education as established by the students responsible for instigating the debate.

The focus and tone of the discussion veered dramatically when an audience member introduced himself as Mark Oppenheimer. In response to the hushed whispers that circulated the lecture hall, he added ‘yes, from the Oppenheimer family (so) I’ve oppressed most of the people in this room.’

The blasé comment was not received with the irreverence with which it was delivered.

Maasdorp interjected immediately.

‘I do not think you have the right to speak,’ Maasdorp told Oppenheimer. ‘You will not speak.’

Audience members were as quick to echo Maasdorp’s sentiments as they were to undermine them. A panel discussion on the possibilities of free education in South Africa whirlwinded into an immediate, entirely real question of the extent and application of freedom of speech.

While Judge Davis and Dr. Mabizela unequivocally supported Oppenheimer’s right to speak, Think!Fest coordinator Anthea Garman suggested that the question was not necessarily so clear.

‘What I do want to say is that I think we can’t just do ‘The Constitution allows every single person the right to speak and say whatever they like.’ There are certain spaces in which that is possible and there are certain times in which that is possible. We are not in one of those spaces right now and we are not in one of those times. That is my opinion as the convener of Think!Fest.’

‘The way things are said has massive (importance). So what we are being told (from the offended members of the audience) is that this is not just a white person with an opinion… Our opinions are not equal here. They are embedded in our histories and in our exclusions and in our racist positions.’

‘Whether this man speaks or he doesn’t speak, what I am trying to do is recognise what is going on right now. And when white people speak, I think they take advantage of the fact that the Constitution allows them an extraordinary amount of privilege to… obscure. Am I hearing this correctly?’

To this question, a large portion of the audience vocally agreed.

‘I want to recognise that the resort to the Constitution, in which everybody has equal voice, does not obtain in this moment in this context at this time. These voices have different weight and different histories and there is a great deal of fraught contestation… But if we recognise that, we might be able to go forward,’ Garman added.

It would be a gross misunderstanding to consider Garman’s statements here as an expression of her personal position on this particular matter of free speech. As it may not be expressly clear in the above quotation, Garman was giving voice to those in the audience who felt that Oppenheimer’s right to speak was not a clear-cut question of the supremacy of the Constitution. What Garman was recognising, regardless of its constitutional validity, was a dominant opinion in the room shared by those that were the least likely, in this delineated space, to have their voices heard.

The debate was eventually called to order, but it’s continuation merely allowed for a discussion about the economic contingencies of funding higher education in South Africa. Oppenheimer was not offered an opportunity to ask his original question, nor was the issue of his right to speak raised again.

The debate ended with a few hushed parting comments between panellists and audience members. I decided to share mine with Mark Oppenheimer. I wasn’t the only one, and I had to wait almost 10 minutes to ask him a question that I already suspected the answer to.

‘No. I’m not related to the Oppenheimer family. I’m actually a free speech lawyer in Johannesburg.’

Irony aside, I feel that these two individuals are representative of two vastly different attitudes in the higher education debate. The fact that Oppenheimer is not blood related to a family of white colonial capitalists does not mean he does not enjoy the benefits of their legacy. While it may be Oppenheimer’s right to make a crass joke, it is his privilege to wield that right without a sense of responsibility. Garman, however, used her comparable privilege in this space to give voice to the young black South Africans most fundamentally implicated in this issue.

Oppenheimer risked very little in this debate, while Garman, very seriously as an academic, risked being misconstrued as undermining the value of free speech. The difference was that Garman, with comparable constitutional and contextual privileges to Oppenheimer, put herself at risk for those who are fundamentally affected by the question of free higher education in this country. And if anything at all can be achieved by those in the private and academic spaces of this country, it will only be with Garman’s sense of responsibility to those who are the most affected.

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