The Youth Month: Reflections on How Far We Have Come in Transforming Access to Higher Education in South Africa

The Youth Month: Reflections on How Far We Have Come in Transforming Access to Higher Education in South Africa

The month of June is dubbed the youth month as we commemorate Youth Day on June 16.  This commemoration is an opportunity to reflect on the historical significance of the occasion, the contribution of youth in changing the educational landscape since the Soweto Uprising in 1976, and the challenges that persist when it comes to the realisation of the right of youth to quality and redistributive education.

The morning of June 16, 1976, in Soweto, was characterised by demonstrations, protests and riots led by black South African youth. The uprising was sparked by the apartheid government's efforts to introduce Afrikaans as the primary medium of instruction in black schools. This was the new education policy of the apartheid government, and it was perceived as an effort to instil Afrikaner culture and way of life. The reaction of the youth of 1976, and the subsequent responses of today's youth to unequal education and their socio-economic struggles mirror each other and compel us to draw comparisons and parallels.

In contemporary South Africa, the youth are confronted by endemic unemployment, food insecurity, climate impact on future generations, violence, and other socio-economic issues that are detrimental to the livelihood of young people, such as the non-redistributive education policies.

Education policies in South Africa speak to the roles and principles that direct the nation's delivery and administration of education. Government agencies, such as the Department of Education, are tasked with adopting these policies as their form of governance and its goals. They intend to guarantee that all students have access to high-quality instruction that satisfies their requirements and equips them for life beyond school.

Education policies are intended to promote equity, access, and excellence in education and to address the historical inequalities that have been a significant challenge in the country. However, these are complicated by the lack of redistributive measures in education policies from the perspective of socio-economic inclusion of the black majority in post-conflict democratic South Africa.

In response to the non-redistributive education policies, South Africa has witnessed prominent student protests across universities from 2015 until today. The Stellenbosch University movement #Open Stellenbosch 2015 exposed what was left unattended from the country's transition from the apartheid system to a new democratic order when transitional justice processes began in South Africa. What happened at Stellenbosch University is no different from what happened in Soweto in 1976, the continued use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. In contrast, the majority of the students do not understand the language. The issue goes far beyond the preference for the Afrikaans language but also speaks to the continuous efforts of domination and the use of educational institutions to instil Afrikaner culture. #OpenStellenbosch movement of 2015 exposed the deeply entrenched hegemonic white Afrikaner culture and the exclusion of black students and staff members post-apartheid South Africa.

From an economic perspective, the #FeesMustFall movement came about to question the financial exclusion of black students in institutions of higher learning on financial basis and affordability. Their economic position as black students often disrupts their inclusion in institutions of higher learning as black students. Yearly, we still see pockets of movements that speak to the financial exclusion of black students in South African universities when students are to register for the academic year. This renders the educational policies in post-conflict South Africa non-redistributive and ineffective in addressing the issues facing historically marginalised black South African students.

Social policies ought to be collective efforts to directly promote social welfare, social institutions, and social relations. They are meant to advance redistribution aimed at balancing the scales of equal participation and access to rights, the protection of people from the vagaries of the market and the changing circumstances of life, the enhancement of the productive potential of members of society, enhancing social cohesion and state building, all of which have not yet been realised in South Africa.

The nation-building project of the "rainbow nation" in South Africa which sought to enhance social cohesion through a forged national identity inclusive of all is complicated by the unaddressed legacy of the apartheid era, and unequal education, that remains unattended.

As stated in the preamble of the Constitution of South Africa, in recognition of the injustices of the past, particularly in the education system, the need is greater now to "heal the divisions of the past" and "improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person", particularly the youth whose demographic potential as leaders of today and tomorrow requires that quality and equal education becomes the foundation for harnessing their socio-political participation, decision making and leadership.

Language should not be used as a barrier to learning, and it should not be used to perpetuate structural violence and domination. There is also a need to reimagine social welfare initiatives aimed at progressive realisation of quality and equal higher education for all, irrespective of socio-economic marginalisation, such as such as the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and ensure that they do not require people to provide evidence for their poverty or try to qualify their 'need' for this government assistance.


Nandipha Mabindisa
+ posts

Related Content


Young, Female and African… and Precarious – Why the workplace needs to protect young women from all forms of gender-based violence

Lived realities: Empowerment gaps and opportunities for women living in rural communities in South Africa

Summary Booklet – Lived realities and SGBV Responses Copy

Youth Participation in Transitional Justice: Partnering with Impunity Watch to bridge the gap in Africa

Translate »