Students’ just cause puts leaders on the spot


I am reading a book entitled ‘The Making of a Leader’ by Dr J Robert Clinton, an Assistant Professor of Leadership and Extension of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary. One of the profound things that the professor says is that “there are three basal elements of leadership: leader, followers, and situation” (1988:182). He advocates that leaders should learn to read and discern the context in which their leadership will be exercised.

I mention this book in light of the student protests taking place throughout the country and I am of the view that these protests are speaking to the issue of leadership. The message is that students are tired of being priced out of quality education and of being prevented from escaping the poverty trap that surrounds many of them. They know that the key to escaping this poverty is education and this is why they are so desperate to obtain it. 

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Their protest is held under the hash tag ‘FeesMustFall’ which is a piggyback on the ‘RhodesMustFall’ campaign that saw the bust of Cecil John Rhodes removed from the University of Cape Town. It is clear that the success of the ‘RhodesMustFall’ campaign has galvanised and given them the confidence that they will also succeed in their campaign against university fee increases. Such is their confidence that they took their protests straight to Parliament and in fact stormed through its gates demanding that the Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande address them.

Their fearless actions are reminiscent of the ‘Arab Spring’ protests that ushered a regime change in many Muslim countries. But thankfully the students are not asking for President Jacob Zuma and his cabinet to step down but for equal access to higher education regardless of a person’s material background. Dr Nadine Bowers-Du Toit, a lecturer at Stellenbosch University also touched on the issue of the inaccessibility of higher education to needy students in a recent presentation I attended. 

Problem of mercy without justice
She spoke of her visit to Khayamnandi, a township outside of Stellenbosch and was struck by its proximity to her university and yet many in that township cannot access the university owing to their financial status. In other words class and not academic potential is the final arbiter on who gets quality education and who doesn’t. In this Dr Bowers-Du Toit sees an injustice. In her presentation she quoted from Lupton (2011:4) who wrote, “mercy without justice degenerates into dependency and entitlement, preserving the power of the giver over the recipients.”

‘Mercy’ is a reference to the handouts we give to the poor but ‘justice’ speaks to the empowerment of the poor to a point that the poor can be self-sufficient. Besides placating our consciences ‘mercy’ driven projects create dependency on the side of the poor while leaving the giver with a sense of power over the poor. What the students are calling for is justice. Many of them know that handouts will not change the material conditions of the communities they come from.

Education is a game changer and offers a person options. A lack of education deprives a person of options and ensures that he remains forever trapped in a subservient life. These protests are calling upon our leaders to be responsive to the plight faced by the country’s youth and as a parent of pre-primary children I know that what happens today will also affect the future of my children. From the way things are at the moment it look looks like I will have to be a millionaire in order for my children to obtain a junior degree, at the very least.

I am encouraged to see that there is a non-racial element to these protests which shows that many South African parents, across the racial divide, are struggling to meet the financial demands of higher education. My hope now is that the country’s leaders will have a strategy that will properly address this situation, not only for the current crop of students, but also for the generation of my children. This is what leadership is about.   


  1. Margaret Ferguson

    I have been closely following and reading about the matter of student fees and following the matter of education costs outside South Africa too. I came to the conclusion initially that student loans was the way to go as ‘means testing’ of parents when I received tertiary ducation was also unfair. Parents who did not receive help could refuse to pay for their offspring so preventing them receiving tertiary education. It happened in UK all those years ago (I am 75 Years old!) High numbers of graduate unemployed is another practical matter for paying back a loan. Then today I saw an article that it would take a particular employed graduate 47 years to pay back a loan of Rand 223,000 and Jonathan Jansen in The Times wrote an excellent article about the poor future of South African universities if a sustainable financing model could not be found. Western countries in the global situation are finding the cost of education a big issue. In the final analysis, new ideas usually arrive on the scene and suddenly I saw the real possibility that the first degree of the future would probably be accessed through the internet perhaps with residential summer schools for interrelational contact by students. That would be better than finishing up in South Africa as has happened in northern African Universities post independence – collapse. There are great strides with internet education at a fraction of the current costs so there is hope.

  2. While I understand the plight of the youth, I do not agree with their actions. My daughter, whom we have struggled to give a higher education due to financial restraints has lost 2 weeks of lectures, exams moved on by 2 weeks and faced intimidation and fear for her safety. Is this really the way to go?

  3. Hugh G Wetmore

    Good that you address the issues of Dependency and Entitlement. These are issues that must be factored into any solution and strategy. Margaret’s suggestion of Internet Education is worth pursuing. Though could this be applied to ALL courses? The practical ones would have to include some hands-on training. Creative thinking is needed, not revolutionary violence.