Education for liberation

Dramatic student protests have blocked a rise in university tuition fees and exposed the ugliness of the Rainbow Nation. Political economist, Patrick Bond, says the “most  intense three-week burst of activist mobilisation since liberation from apartheid in 1994” has  achieved “an historic victory over South African neoliberalism.”

There is every reason to agree with Professor Bond that the protests are a seminal event exposing the twin spectres of race and class that still haunt South Africa. It is no accident that Black Consciousness with its emphasis on psychological emancipation flowered at the University of Natal, the heartland of white liberalism in the sixties, where Steve Biko was a student.There is clearly unfinished business as that experience of inflicted inferiority and patronage is resurrected at premier universities across the new South Africa.

The New York Times illustrates the point.

 It was only when he landed at the University of Cape Town, a bastion of the fight against apartheid, that Ramabina Mahapa became truly conscious of his race. Mr. Mahapa, 23, grew up in a village with only black South Africans, and he graduated at the top of his high school class. But when he got to the University of Cape Town, the gap between black and white students became clear to him: Of the 15 people who owned cars in his dorm, only one was black. When the first test results came in, the black students ranked at the bottom. “That’s why I then started feeling black,” said Mr. Mahapa, who was born two years before the end of apartheid and is now a third-year psychology and philosophy major, as well as the president of the university’s student government. “Even when I occasionally would see pictures on TV about apartheid, you never internalized it or thought about it — up until you come to a space where you actually experience it,” he added.

Almost 30 years ago I reported the death throes of formal apartheid from the surveilled offices of the Press Trust of South Africa in Durban.

Guardian, New York, April 1986.

Black protest in South Africa is rapidly acquiring a revolutionary edge. In black townships across the country new forms of governance are emerging. Democracy is flourishing on the ground as never before, capturing the imagination of students and workers and revitalising the ghettoes with a new sense of power…The Pretoria regime is still in control of its railways and harbours, its airports and military installations. Its commercial centres may be emptied by consumer boycotts and threatened by limpet mine attacks but they remain in business. The sprawling black townships are another matter altogether. Governing them is increasingly becoming a logistic impossibility. They can only be besieged.

In this culture of insurrection and burgeoning grass roots democracy the dangerously unthinkable became obvious. An apartheid educational system which buttressed racism and exploitation was beyond reform.

Guardian, New York, May 1986.

“For a little while longer, black students will continue to fight the country’s racist education system from within their classrooms. But their revolutionary determination to completely dismantle the system and replace it with ‘people’s education’ seems likely to result in increased clashes with authorities and a resumption of the school boycott by mid-year. Last December, amid calls for a national boycott,  a meeting of some 160 student and community organisations gave the government a three-month deadline to meet their demands. On March 29 and 30, as the deadline ran out a watershed conference in Durban found that Pretoria had largely ignored the demands. But instead of a boycott the National Education Crisis Committee resolved to develop alternative strategies to make ‘people’s education’ a reality… “It prepares people for participation in a non-racial democratic system, eliminates the capitalist norms of competition and individualism, and encourages collective inputs…It stimulates critical techniques, equips and trains people to struggle for democracy, and allows students, parents, teachers and workers to be mobilised and organised to resist exploitation.”

A generation on South Africa seethes in discontent with educational provision and purpose increasingly dictated by the God of all commodities, the market. In Britain it is now patent that education for jobs in the ‘high-wage, low-tax, low welfare’ society is a fraud, a smokescreen for profit extraction and indoctrination, a template for the new serfdom under construction. South African students will arrive at the same dead end without the most creative resistance. Two years ago academics and dangerous citizens, E. Wayne Ross and Kevin Vinson described the corporate takeover.

For more than three decades now, there has been a steady intensification of education reforms, worldwide, aimed at making schools and universities more responsive to the interests of capital than ever before. There was never a golden age of public education in the public interest, but since the rise of neoliberalism in the twentieth century—marked by economic liberalization, free trade, open markets, privatization, and deregulation—education and other public sector services have been subjected to an unrelenting market fundamentalism, or the belief that free markets can solve economic and social problems. Neoliberal education reform aims for a large-scale transformation of public education that opens it up to private investment.The global education market is now valued at $4.4 trillion (up from $2.5 trillion in 2005), with projections for rapid growth the next five years…There has been an ever-tightening grip on what students learn and what teachers teach. The primary instruments used in the surveillance of teachers and students and enforcement of official knowledge has been the creation of state level curriculum standards paired with standardized tests, creating bureaucratic accountability systems that undermine the freedom to teach and learn.

Market fundamentalism devalues critical thought and social responsibility, promotes totalitarianism, facilitates  9/11 style state violence and reinforces control by the Point One Percent. The dirty common sense of British life  – beyond the blandishments of  democracy – is the iron law of obedience to ‘management’. And it is the same across the Atlantic. Here’s the eminent cultural critic, Henry Giroux.

In fact, the state for all intents and purposes has become the corporate state. Dominant power is now all too visible and the policies, practices and wrecking ball it has imposed on society appear to be largely unchecked. Any compromising notion of ideology has been replaced by a discourse of command and certainty backed up by the militarization of local police forces, the surveillance state and all of the resources brought to bear by a culture of fear and a punishing state aligned with the permanent war on terror. Informed judgment has given way to a corporate-controlled media apparatus that celebrates the banality of balance and the spectacle of violence, all the while reinforcing the politics and value systems of the financial elite…Across the globe, the tension between democratic values and market fundamentalism has reached a breaking point. The social contract is under assault, neo-Nazism is on the rise, right-wing populism is propelling extremist political candidates and social movements into the forefront of political life, anti-immigrant sentiment is now wrapped in the poisonous logic of nationalism and exceptionalism, racism has become a mark of celebrated audacity and a politics of disposability comes dangerously close to its endgame of extermination for those considered excess.

The elite have no qualms. Sceptics should note the ongoing real life experiment in Greece. And the surging bile of ‘poverty porn’ on British television in which the poor – and voiceless – are viciously targeted as parasites. So hats off to South African academics like Salim Vally and Enver Motala for seriously challenging the education for jobs consensus and the terrifying agenda it conceals.

We argue in essence that education might increase employability but is not an automatic guarantee for full employment; that an instrumentalist view of the role of education is unhelpful especially as such a view is always based on a raft of unjustified claims about the outcomes of education and skills; that education and training is not simply a handmaiden for resolving the problems of low economic output; and that a wide range of exogenous factors and social relations (inherent in all societies) circumscribe the potential value of education and training…Neoliberal globalisation’s narrow focus on business and the market system continues to undermine and distort the purposes of good-quality public education. It has the potential to negate the struggles for a fair, just and humane society, substituting these for unaccountable and avaricious global autocracies based on the power of money. We cannot abandon the public mandate of the state if we are to have any hope of achieving the goal of a democratic and humane society, free of corruption, accountable public services promoting decent employment and socially useful work, the provision of “public goods” and the development of a genuinely democratic society for all citizens.

In Britain teacher stress levels are soaring as privatisation bites and teachers are ‘dropping like flies’. Nobody in government takes a blind bit of notice. Their kids will go to private – as opposed to privatised schools – and on to Oxbridge to excel in voodoo economics as part of the education for jobs programme.To be fair ‘people’s education’ is unlikely to produce the required number of morons.

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