23 October 2015

The Jesuit Institute South Africa, seeing education as critical to the betterment of our society, supports the rights of students to peacefully protest against the high and rapidly rising cost of Tertiary Education which excludes the poor, working class and even sections of the middle class. The rights to gather peacefully and protest against what amounts to unjust financial exclusion from educational institutions are protected by section 17 and section 18 of the Constitution respectively.  Peaceful gathering and protest are not criminal offences, but guaranteed civil freedoms.

The NSFAS bursary scheme is completely inadequate. Those who are not “poor enough” to qualify can often neither find the fees themselves, nor do they meet criteria for student loans.  We are acutely aware that many students are under intolerable pressures, trying to study full-time and simultaneously to earn enough money both to cover their fees and living expenses.

To deny the problem of financial exclusions is a grave injustice to the many who have struggled through the material and intellectual poverty of an imprudent school system and yet prevailed sufficiently to get into higher education. Education is a way out of poverty into the possibility of self-improvement, a decent job, a better life – and perhaps a vision of a wider world. No talented young person should be condemned to the poverty trap due to lack of funds. Catholic Social Teaching emphasises the empowerment of the poor and education as a key means of doing so.

We are also aware that Universities are struggling to maintain their provision of quality education as numbers of students have increased dramatically. Quality education requires an adequate body of well-qualified staff to meet student numbers. In addition, due to the large size of some universities, the cost of administration can be prohibitively expensive, not to mention the cost of the necessary educational resources.

We support students whose protests have put the serious issue of access to tertiary education firmly on the national agenda, and are heartened to see that many students have rallied across racial lines. Their commitment to challenging injustice peacefully is cause for great hope for the future of our country.  We appeal to students to continue to exercise good leadership and conduct their protest peacefully and with dignity (as has largely been the case thus far) and not to engage in acts of vandalism or destruction of property which will harm their cause. We appeal to government to take cognisance of the gravity and urgency of the situation and to engage students in genuine dialogue in the process of seeking a way forward. Money that is being wasted through corruption should be going into education and other critical areas for development. Education must be a priority and one which needs to be invested in appropriately.  Finally,   we remind government and the police that we do not need another Marikana. We strongly condemn the use of unnecessary police force against students. As section 13 of the South African Police Service Act 68 of 1995 says, the members of the South African Police Service must exercise their duty with due regard to the Constitutional rights of all persons in South Africa. Crucially, this section also states that even when use of force is authorised in a particular situation, only the minimum use of force is permitted.

As Pope Francis said in discussing the right to education: “The full exercise of human dignity must be built up and allowed to unfold for each individual.” We call on all people of faith to pray that a peaceful and constructive way through the crisis may be found and that education may become more accessible to all.

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