Complex challenges at Nelson Mandela University


When one looks at the #FeesMustFall protests from the context of Nelson Mandela University, which since 2005 is a merger of four institutions, there are conceptual and technical aspects that need to be explained and understood.Firstly, NMU is a residential university located in the Eastern Cape province, in the city of Port Elizabeth, mainly in the suburb of Summerstrand.It was established to serve and produce a minority class of white professionals until the 1994 post-apartheid moment, until which 81% of the population was racially excluded from enrolling in it.Secondly, the Eastern Cape province was the main target of colonialism.The proletarianisation of black people, mainly through land dispossession, the migrant labour system, which resulted in black community decay and family breakdowns, university exclusion and Bantu education which recycled generational illiteracy, all produced layers of dehumanisation and disempowerment.Thirdly, apartheid further intensified the injustice by creating a city with a spatial divide that is categorised mainly according to race patterns.The Group Areas Act produced specific areas where black people with dark skins stay, the isolated and distant townships of Zwide, Motherwell and New Brighton.It produced areas where black people with lighter skins stay, such as Korsten, and then the suburbs where white people stay, which are closer to the shopping malls, golf courses, the ocean, and the tarred roads where the Ironman Championship takes place.Fourthly, the post-apartheid government was faced with a responsibility to educate the previously excluded 81% of the population in universities that had an infrastructure capacity to accommodate a white minority class.In addition, this previously excluded population had to be educated all at the same time as a large group so that it could quickly catch up with the opportunities that an open economy affords.However, this massification of universities must happen in an environment that has skewed conditions.The 81% of the population that must enrol in universities does not stay in Summerstrand, where the university is located. This population must travel from its colonially isolated and rural regions to the city.In other words, the population must come to the city and needs accommodation.Furthermore, the colonial proletarianisation of this population means that it does not have money to purchase the education of this urban university, never mind the means to pay for the rent, the food, and the transport required to commute daily across the spatially divided city.Community decay and family breakdowns also mean that these students need to be uniquely understood from a multi-layered oppression point of view.In other words, a black student could also be a single teenage mother, a breadwinner, a retrenched worker, an orphan, and even possibly a resilient young person with big dreams who does not want to be associated with the impression of “lacking”.Therefore, for NMU, massification takes place within the context of a spatially divided city that has infrastructure challenges, enrolling mainly matric products of the poor province’s underperforming basic education system that is engulfed in communities with extreme levels of poverty.Massification has placed many demands on the NMU system that it could address minimally, if not poorly, within the structural constraints inherited from a society that set it up to fail.Apartheid’s racially exclusive policies, spatial divide of cities and the post-apartheid massification of the sector that is done within apartheid’s surfaced society has moved the black subject from apartheid dehumanisation to post-apartheid humiliation.Currently, NMU’s political economy can only reproduce apartheid’s spatial planning wherein its poorest students reside furthest from the university campus in poor areas and the university’s billions of rands are injected into a shuttle service to transport those students across the spatial divide daily to cushion distances that were determined by apartheid’s geography.The university is trapped in that financial bubble and it is, unfortunately, still forced to take its long-term financial decisions within the paradigm of apartheid planning.Therefore, and inevitably, the #FeesMustFall protests in the micro-environment of NMU had to be, firstly, about the basic economic needs of poor students and black workers. The worker’s concerns were also about low wages, which made it impossible for them to live through the month commuting in a spatially divided city and still having to support their families.For students, the focus was on their living and learning conditions, which were mainly related to the drawbacks of studentification in a spatially located off-campus residence system, and other humiliating experiences that come with the catastrophes of massification, such as congestion and poor quality of services.The multi-layered patterns of oppression, the humiliating massification experience, and the complicity of a conservative university also made the #FeesMustFall protest at NMU highlight other brutal forms of student suffering portrayed mainly by sexism, racism, a white institutional culture, an alienating curriculum, and gender-based violence.● Mzileni is a PhD sociology candidate at NMU. This is an extract from his first book, #FeesMustFall at Mandela’s University, co-authored with Siyabulela Mandela.

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