The blame game: classism and inequality in tertiary education

Trigger warning: This blog post addresses classism and *extensively* quotes classist/ anti-poor sentiments. Also, there’s some reference to the #RUreferencelist protests later.

The national shutdown in the #FeesMustFall movement was significant in that, amongst other things, it displayed the potential for students to band together for an important cause. The extent to which #FeesMustFall can be deemed a success has been hotly contested, especially considering that several student groups have continued protesting financial exclusion well into 2016. Such protests indicate that the ‘0% increase’ secured through last year’s protests only tackled the tip of the iceberg.

At the university currently known as Rhodes, student activism led by groups such as Rhodes Asinamali, has shown that covering tuition costs is only one aspect of redressing financial exclusion. For instance, this year, there have been protests highlighting the plight of Oppidan students who attend lectures hungry because of inadequate funding. Another matter which arose was the high cost of attending graduation ceremonies for students who are not well off. Additionally, students pointed out the exclusionary costs of events such as Africa Ball (R120 per person), where provisions had not been made for students on financial aid.

Recently, Rhodes announced that they would withhold June exam results for students who had not honored their payment agreements or still owed more than 50% of their fees. The decision to announce this the day before results were due to be released angered many. Rhodes University’s spokesperson released a follow-up statement saying that some students had been given the payment warning erroneously. In addition, she said the University’s decision to withhold results was not a decision which was taken lightly as Rhodes had less than two months of funds** to cover its financial commitments.

Since the decision to withhold results was announced, it has been a hot topic on social media platforms such as Twitter, Rhodes Confessions and the UCKAR student body group. Such debates have pointed to a division in opinion over how the university handled this situation and in my view, have brought into question whether/how the types of solidarity we saw during the #FeesMustFall movement can be achieved again.

The polarizing nature of the views expressed by students via social media pose a big threat to student solidarity. Many of the comments I read contained heavy anti-poor sentiments. For instance, a common inference made was that (guardians/parents of) students who defaulted on payments did not ‘work hard’ enough and that is why they hadn’t paid. This logic rests on the idea that if one simply works hard, they will be able to accumulate wealth. However, in actuality, the workings of our exploitative economic system mean that the ‘haves’ benefit as a result of the poor’s hard work, not as a result of them working harder than everyone else. Thus, the simplistic view that working and lower middle class students can and should simply just work harder in order to make the payments unjustly victim-blames those already marginalized.

A second debate which arose was whether tertiary education is a right or a privilege. Several commentators argued that university education is a luxury and that people should ‘live within their means’.  In failing to acknowledge the contradictions of our reality, in the same breath, some of these commentators noted that ‘education is the key to escaping poverty’. This is where it gets tense, right – because if education is the key out of poverty, then it should go without saying that it shouldn’t be a luxury. If poor, Black students cannot access higher education* now, the country will remain untransformed.

Thirdly, the conversations I followed often became about “entitlement” – specifically, the entitlement of students who are indebted to Rhodes, presumably, in wanting to study at an institution they cannot afford. The anti-poor sentiment here is clear, as is the violent logic of capitalism. As Foucault writes, “Power is tolerable only on condition that it masks a substantial part of itself” – power works by ‘hiding its own mechanisms’.  In this instance, the power of class privilege works to frame the problem of inequality as a one which the rich have no part or responsibility in. So when the question of entitlement comes up, it’s never in reference to the entitlement that some CEOs must have in accepting bonuses/salaries that could pay someone’s school fees. It’s never in reference to the entitlement that people who have never worried about varsity fees must feel when they say that protests such as #FeesMustFall inconvenience them. The method of capitalism’s power is to ensure, repeatedly, that the many entitlements of the rich are never questioned or even seen as such.

In addition, the very word ‘entitlement’ in this context frames a Rhodes education as something that doesn’t belong to working class or lower-middle class students. Of course, the way the world is set up, nothing can [presently] be free. That said, it is troubling that some choose to frame wanting an education [one which could meaningfully change the lives of many students’ families] as something working and lower middle class students should feel wrong for. A lot of the comments/confessions I read suggested that if you cannot afford Rhodes, you should go study somewhere you can afford to. For many people, this is saying that they shouldn’t pursue tertiary education at all. Sentiments like these are the reason people can’t breathe at Rhodes University. It’s because even when you get ‘access’ to the space, the way the institution functions (and often, the views of fellow students) make you feel like you are not really meant to be there.

Further, comments like “The world owes you nothing” are meant to silence those who are dissatisfied with society’s deplorably low standards for economic justice. Saying that working-class people are ‘entitled’ is saying the ‘have-not’s’ should accept inequality as their cross to bear. It’s telling of how individualistic (and cruel) the world has become, because in such thinking, it’s inferred that an injustice suffered by one person is no one else’s business.

The lie of capitalism makes us think that any adverse circumstances can be overcome by just trying harder, undermining how hard many people already try.  We’re socialized to view our own (financial) successes as results of our hard work and in turn, view those who are not as privileged as being responsible for being in that position. Instead of addressing the cause of the unjust circumstances, we’re told that we can just “refuse” to let circumstances define us. This message is internalized by people on all ends of the class spectrum. This is why, as was seen in some confessions, some working or lower middle class students shamed others in the same position as them, saying that since their parents/guardians had “worked hard/made a plan”, others should/could too.

For those who felt that the results being withheld was unjust and thought Rhodes had acted in bad faith in the way it handled the matter**, there was considerable opposition. The rebuttal against us was that we “fail to understand reality”, don’t know “how the world works”, that we’re “throwing tantrums” and need to be “made aware of some truths”. What I found sad about these responses is that the author(s) do not see potential for a different world. To say that we shouldn’t bother to point out injustice where we recognize it, is to accept its defeat absolutely. To say that we’re ‘throwing tantrums’ is to say that in demanding justice, we are asking for more than is deserved. To say we are unaware of how the world works is to suggest that this world actually works. And with everything in my being, I reject that.

I insist that this reality can be re-imagined, as difficult as that change will be. It is my truth that my fellow students’ plight has everything to do with me. While it remains convenient for the privileged to frame ourselves as not being part of the inequality problem, it’s already too late for us to escape our involvement. We can, however, act to dismantle our complicity. Humanity’s hope rests on this potential: on our ability to recognize that inequality is an injustice that no-one deserves.

*With that said, the fact that tertiary education is seen as the only path to economic emancipation says a lot about how the economic and education systems are just not working out. Tertiary education institutions cannot sustain the economic hopes of the entire population, especially seeing as they’re struggling to cope with their present demographic. Therefore, although I’m arguing for transformation within these institutions, this argument is limited because that the broader questions about inequality cannot be answered by an increase in working-class graduates alone.
** I think that the way Rhodes informed students about withholding results was in bad faith. At the same time, I recognize, as many have pointed out, that the university is facing a financial crisis and that, oksalayo, they have to get money from somewhere (while I await the revolution). Last semester, when the university was faced with the problem of sexual assault, the VC suggested that perhaps we should look to change Constitution since the problems students pointed out were not necessarily all in the university’s jurisdiction. He suggested that since a university is (allegedly) place for knowledge-production, maybe we could be innovative in tackling the problem. Somehow, faced with the financial crisis, we have not heard a similar story about innovation from UCKAR management. There have been no statements about re-directing the weight of problem at the government or at the wealthier corporates of South Africa. Thus, though I get that the money has to come from somewhere, I maintain that the university is anti-poor because by withholding results, they placed the burden of the problem on those who were already worst affected.
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The difficulties of loving stand-up comedy

Comedian 1: Apparently, Jacob Zuma can’t name his successor – Why?  Is his successor a number?
Comedian 2: “I’m a white girl, so I can’t dance, but at least this is my real hair”. She adds, “If I’ve offended you, you can twerk on outta here.”

Comedians are often walking a very thin line – one joke could ruin the whole set, sometimes you have the wrong joke, sometimes it’s the wrong crowd. In such instances, how do you know when you are taking something too far? What are the limits? The pressing question (I’d imagine) is when is it too soon to make a joke about Oscar? How do you recover when the punchline misses the mark? These are the questions that keep me awake at night (well, sometimes).

I’m interested in the politics of stand-up comedy shows, mainly because they can seem so apolitical. Everyone is just there to laugh because laughing is nice and we want nice things. Then everyone goes home. Simple. But there is a lot going on, power-wise, if you can afford to sit in a big room and pay someone to make you laugh. There’s a lot going on when the audience is predominantly middle-class; when the jokes are about PVRs and panicking about crime. There’s a lot going on when the comedian talks about travels to the UK or Australia and his audience can relate.

At the same time, I’m interested in the politics of comedy because it’s making me uncomfortable to think about what I laugh at and what I don’t. On a day like today, when it seems like 100% of things that happen on Earth are horrible and not funny, I find myself questioning what (or who) I am really laughing at.

Fatigued by the unfunny

A popular formula in stand-up seems to be to appeal to people’s politically incorrect leanings: a lot of punchlines are about fat people, black people, women, queer people, etc. With this formula, you push the boundaries a bit, playing on established stereotypes. Maybe it’s popular because it’s safe: because it’s what people were thinking, but were too ‘afraid’ to express.

For me, this formula is lacking. All it really is, is throwing marginalized people under the bus. The method is tired, which is why the jokes are tired. The punchlines in this category – the ones about about Zuma, black women,  fat or disabled people – don’t amuse because they don’t require imagination. I’ve heard them already: the only difference is that before, they were dressed as slurs.

Stand-up is political to me because it’s a form of storytelling: it’s representation. I’ve been fascinated by the power of storytelling for a long time. Stories have the power to influence ideas and, in turn, human relations are determined by those ideas. That’s why it matters to me to think about who tells a story, how they tell it and for what purpose. Perhaps I’ve found myself disappointed with comedy because the stories being told don’t push enough buttons. A joke about Zuma overshadows the fact that apartheid is the reason he was unable to access education. The joke about black women twerking, told by a white woman, just reminds me that white women don’t have a great track record when it comes to showing up for black women.

Possibilities for challenging the status quo

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Last Sunday, I caught Tyson Ngubeni’s show The Dark Ages. In it, Ngubeni jokes about the colourism he’s experienced and his brushes with xenophobia, resulting from him being mistaken for a foreigner.

The stage was decorated with flags from different countries and marred by posters containing slurs like amakwerekwere. Again, I was on edge. This time it was because xenophobia and colourism are so touchy, I struggle to discuss them in day-to-day conversations. I sat nervously, trying to manage the weight of my expectations, wondering if Ngubeni would take the conversation where I hoped it would go: to the depth of the difficult place.

I thought The Dark Ages was honest and well-delivered. Ngubeni deviates from the tired-trope formula, using humour to ask questions, as opposed to playing on stereotypes. On top of that, The Dark Ages re-orients  the dominant narratives: it exposes the mistreatment foreign and dark-skinned Black people experience, explicitly. I think this critical approach to comedy is what I’ve been missing in the jokes about gay men or fat people or women. Ngubeni uses his positionality as a dark-skinned, South-African to challenge complicity. It’s refreshing, considering the multitude of comedians who poke fun at issues like racism and classism just because

Later on in the week, at The Very Big Comedy Show, I was intrigued by a group of black women, Thenx, who featured briefly. In their musical skit, they sang about the land issue, belting out – to a predominantly white audience – “You know it don’t belong to you”. The crowd seemed more than a bit uncomfortable when they started singing about the k-word, and I was shocked by their honesty.

After this encounter, I was compelled to watched their sketch comedy show Thenx Presents Aza-Nya is Five-To, which didn’t disappoint. In it, they address topical issues like patriarchy, media censorship and economic inequality through vibrant satire and song. Touching again on the matter of inequality and redistribution, they sang, “There’s a huge cake we’re supposed to share [but] the ones with the knife don’t care.”

Thenx’s confrontation is in your face, in all senses.  The peak of their performance is when one of the comedians addresses members of the audience directly, asking why we should ‘keep’ Aza-Nya (South Africa). A woman in the crowd answers, “Because it’s a nice country”. A younger man and his friends respond,”We need to work together. We need to build together”. Sharply, the comedian, asks “A nice country for who? Who is we?”. She’s not going to let us get away with falling back on the myth of the rainbow nation: the promise of unity which has obscured the face of injustice for so long. Rather, as Thenx closes, they call upon the ance-stars – Biko, Sobukwe, Malcom X – reminding us of the legacy of those who have struggled for the realization of true justice. “We know it’s time”, Thenx say.

There is so much room for more of this type of work. There’s so much potential to push the boundaries. I hope, that despite the constraints of trying to make people laugh for money, upcoming comedians can develop new concepts for their sets. As a fan of stand-up, I long for more of this kind of comedy: the type that pushes us all to question what we laugh at after the curtains fall.