University of Cape Town. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
University of Cape Town. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

A NATIONAL Press Club Newsmaker of the Year award has gone to the #FeesMustFall student-led movement, as Business Day reports. This accolade may or may not be celebrated by its perpetrators, but it certainly means the movement got its point across. That point is a little iffy though.

First, it has been clear from the start that free public university education will benefit mostly wealthy students and the very poorest students. By far the bigger group, the missing middle, need the most help, but they are not poor enough to qualify for state help and not wealthy enough to pay their own way.

That is not the whole #FeesMustFall story though. As the club’s Tanya de Vente-Bijker puts it, it has been a "major game changer in our country" and tertiary education in SA will never be the same. Importantly, it has proven again that public secondary education does not produce students fit for higher education, and it has shown public universities cannot cope with the volume of students and demands on resources required to see them educated.

Instead, Da Vinci Institute, a private tertiary education institution, has shown in a submission to the higher education department that the private sector is already providing access to higher education for the universities’ missing middle group, and to other post-school students who are unable to enter the public university system. None of them demands to be exempt from fees.

There was obviously more going on during the #FeesMustFall episode than fees. The protests were as much about poverty and hopelessness as about the cost of tuition and accommodation. As it happened, it coincided with a peak in President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla money scandal, and as Zuma hired and fired a succession of finance ministers. That tanked the rand and galvanised wider protests as the scale of the impropriety involving Zuma and the Gupta family emerged.

This saw the student protest grow into national and widely supported dissent. It was as though an opportunity presented itself in which South Africans could voice their dissatisfaction with everything the ANC-led government has done since the arms deal set the scene, and they would not miss their chance.

Now, nine months and a round of municipal elections later, we have established beyond any doubt, and cast into history, that the state has been captured by a criminal gang that is alienating the nation’s public assets for private gain. We realise, too, that the losses to the country are breathtaking, that the looting is continuing unabated and that it would probably be impossible to weed out the wicked from among us.

But let us say catastrophic state failure is not an option. And if we accept that we cannot rely on the captured state to do the right thing, what are we to do?

We already know force perpetuates institutional violence, and we know that prosecuting each official transgression in the courts is an overwhelming task. But protest we must, and condemnations we must issue, even though we know them to be fruitless.

It seems we are beyond redemption. It seems exposé after exposé of official malfeasance now serve only to add volume to what is already an ocean of bile. Scandal fatigue has set in.

To begin to change the mind-set of venality and mendacity that is fast becoming entrenched in our culture is to continue the painstaking process of educating young South Africans in the hope that they will make less of a hash of citizenship than the dominant generation has. This, however, is increasingly unlikely to happen at SA’s tuition-free public universities. Fortunately, it is already happening at private institutions.

• Blom is a fly-fisherman who likes to write