Fees Must Fall

EDITORIAL, 17 May 2021

#693 | Howard Richards – TRANSCEND Media Service

“Fees must fall” is a South African species of a genus found on every continent. The issue is the high price of tertiary education.  It is a chant that is easy to repeat, a slogan easy to remember–and a moral demand that deserves to be taken seriously.

The genus of which Fees Must Fall is a species is the genus of unfunded rights.

Within the bounds of the ordinary common sense of today´s market societies (“within the box”) Fees Must Fall poses problems with no solutions.  Unfunded rights often do.

Let us first consider the minds of people we will call the “Bad Guys.”  They are the cashiers and treasurers of the schools, and other school authorities who enforce the rule that students are not allowed in classrooms and cannot do academic work for credit unless they pay the fees.  They also include President Ramaphosa and all the members of the legislative, judicial, and executive branch of the government who enforce the rule.  Notice something about the list of bad guys: they enforce, support, and comply with a rule (or set of rules).  Question:  Who or what has power here?  People or rules?  Are the bad guys really bad, or are they just trapped in the box of bounded thinking?

Let us imagine the bad guys talking to each other: “Where are we going to get the money to pay for educating everyone who wants it and needs it if they pay no fees?    The government is already getting deeper in debt every day, and even has had to borrow from the IMF which they hated having to do.  The middle class is tired of being a minority that pays almost all the taxes except the VAT.  The majority is too poor to pay taxes.  The super wealthy are so powerful they can evade most taxes, and it ever came to a show-down between them and the government, the super-wealthy would win.  The VAT is as high as it can go, considering that even the poor have to pay it.  Are we going to gut the budgets of the great universities so that their quality sinks to so low a level that they can only be diploma mills that award useless pieces of paper?  How can these militant young activists identify as the Nelson Mandelas and the Harriet Tubmans of the 21st century when what they demand cannot be funded, and the real-world result of their agitation will do more harm than good?

Now, consider the moral demands of the student activists.

If the Stork happens to deliver you to a poor township in South Africa, then for you unlike for children just like you except for the fact that the Stork delivered them to parents with money,  the main legitimate escape route leading out of poverty is education.   Some children see the light and hit the books, studying while many of their age-mates are having fun.  The nerds look ahead and foresee that if they do not get a qualification that leads to a job, they are likely to end up standing around on street corners doing nothing, or making   the kinds of trouble that people who feel dissed tend to make to get respect.  Much of their comparatively short life (compared to the life expectancy of a professional person with a steady job) will be spent hustling money honestly if possible, dishonestly if necessary.

The nerds hit the books to save themselves and to make their parents proud.   The parents and grandparents of studious young poor people usually back them up, going hungry themselves to buy school uniforms or books.   The old make their own hard lives even harder to build a better life for the young.  Then, finally, I, assuming I was an infant that the Stork dropped in a neighbourhood where every day was an unending struggle just to survive, who turned out to be studious and smart, pass the exams to get a secondary diploma.  I get accepted in a tertiary course leading to a qualification.  And then:  THE FEES stand in my way.  The Freedom Charter says I have a right to an education and an opportunity to earn enough money to live on.  That was what the Freedom Struggle was all about.  So does the Constitution of South Africa.  So do the United Nations.  When I see hundreds of expensive cars whizzing down the highways, I see with my own eyes that South Africa is not a poor country.  When they tell me there is no money anywhere to fund my basic rights, I do not believe it!

As long as we remain within the box of the   common sense and orthodox law and economics of modern societies, Fees Must Fall belongs in a category that Lewis Coser calls absolute conflict.   It is absolute because the parties share no common framework inside which they can reason together to negotiate a compromise.

The culprit is the concept of “rights.”  Its classic sources are the French Declaration des Droits de l´Homme et du Citoyen of 1789 and the Bill of Rights appended to the United States Constitution in 1791.  The first Bill of Rights ever was the British Bill of Rights of 1689.  The idea of “rights” in the beginning meant and for nearly three centuries continued to mean,

 setting in stone powers of the people, or certain people, to enjoy autonomy and privileges that the government must respect and may not interfere with. 

In the early British Bill of Rights, the certain people favoured were Protestants, members of Parliament, church prelates, and freeholders, i.e. landowners.  (Regarding the French Declaration see Thomas Piketty 2020; regarding the USA Charles Beard 1921.)

In 1948 the concept of rights took a left turn.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of that year, unanimously approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations, and ratified by the parliaments of most nations, majorly modifies the relation of rights to governments.  Bills of rights in national constitutions written since 1948 are no longer just lists of what governments must not do.  Now they include lists of what governments must do.  These provisions of the South African Constitution of 1996 are typical:

Section 26 Housing

(1) Everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing….

Section 27 Health care, food, water and social security

(1) Everyone has the right to have access to

(a) health care services, including reproductive health care;
(b) sufficient food and water; and
(c) social security, including, if they are unable to support themselves and their dependants, appropriate social assistance….

Section 29 Education

(1) Everyone has the right

(a) to a basic education, including adult basic education; and
(b) to further education, which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible.

However, social rights guaranteed in a Constitution need to be funded if they are going to be real.  At the same time, the post-1948 Constitutions grant social rights they make it almost impossible to fund them.  The new Constitutions add social rights to the protections of property rights, of individual freedom, and of commercial relationships freely determined by contracts, i.e. of markets –but they make no effective provisions for modifying property rights to fund social rights.

Since the beginning of modernity, not just since 1948, governments have been organized to attract investment.  Governments are legally organized, as Max Weber says, make business possible by making the consequences of economic decisions predictable.   This means that the property rights and contract rights of businesses must be defended, not diminished.

So where are the funds to fund university fees and other unfunded rights going to come from?   The same constitutions that guarantees social rights also guarantee that the principal wealth of the country will not be seized to fund them.  Tax competition to attract globally mobile capital, not just neoliberal economics, guarantee that wealth will be taxed less, not more.

History has bequeathed us a dysfunctional system that does not work for anybody.   The system is driving us straight toward an ecological catastrophe that not one single human wants.  The system is filling the streets of cities with people who are homeless or one pay check away from homeless, often humiliated, rejected, half-crazy and searching in trash cans for food –and the miserable existence of every one of them is a threat, not a blessing, for those of us who have the privileges of sleeping in a clean bed and eating three good meals a day.  History has bequeathed us endless wars, as well as the economic, political, and cultural dynamics that cause the wars.

Summary:  Today the struggle is not us against them.  It is all of us against history, it is against the box history put us in.

Now let us bring this discussion of world dynamics back to the question of what we do about Fees Must Fall, and other unfunded rights, here and now.   Let´s go back to the infant the Stork dropped in hell on earth, who twenty years later realized that the Constitution of South Africa promised her or him heaven on earth.  And revolted.  And make a few tentative suggestions.

First Tentative Suggestion:    All of the deserving students who should have their fees paid so they can use the knowledge they will acquire  to contribute to society cannot be funded by government´s or by the universities´ own funds.  If justice is to be done, private donors will have to have to listen to their consciences and open their pocketbooks and purses.

Second Tentative Suggestion:  The major problem to be solved is back in the townships where the majority still are.  Justice for the few studious young people who managed to study their way to the point where now they are frustrated by high university fees is a comparatively small matter.

Third Tentative Suggestion:  Government alone cannot solve any of society´s main problems, even if by some miracle it were to become corrupt-free tomorrow.

Fourth Tentative Suggestion:  The basic principle of modern society, namely the principle that everybody is supposed to make a living selling something to get money, usually selling their labour, has got to go.  We must go back to the older African and pre-modern principle that everybody who is born is a member of an extended family.  Everybody should be loved, respected, and cared for because they are a person, not because they have labour to sell that some employer can make a profit by hiring.

Fifth Tentative Suggestion:  Intelligent machines will be the workers of the future.  The question is:  Who gets the benefit?  Will the same financial elite that owns most intellectual property rights to advanced technology also buy up real estate and almost everything else worth owning (which is what is happening now, as Michael Hudson and others show in detail)?  We are not going to save the world by flooding the labour market with unemployed graduates with advanced degrees.

Sixth Tentative Suggestion:  It is not enough to fight for justice.  To achieve justice, we must think for justice.  When we   think for justice, we realize that the answers to many key questions are not known.  The “unbounded” approach is to admit that we do not know the answers.  If we sincerely work together aligning across sectors, share ideas, and are willing to give of our time and treasure, our chances of contributing to building a better world improve.


Prof. Howard Richards is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is a philosopher of social science who holds the title of Research Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College, Indiana.  He was educated at Redlands High School in California, Yale, Stanford, University of California at Santa Barbara, University of Toronto, Harvard and Oxford. His books include The Evaluation of Cultural Action, Letters from Quebec, Understanding the Global Economy, The Dilemmas of Social Democracies, Gandhi and the Future of Economics, Rethinking Thinking, Unbounded Organizing in Community, and The Nurturing of Time Future. He currently teaches in the University of Cape Town`s EMBA programme.  His new book, written with the assistance of Gavin Andersson, Economic Theory and Community Development: Why Putting Community First Is Essential for Survival is scheduled to be published in July of 2021.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 17 May 2021.

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