30 May 2005

And the presently-disadvantaged?

After attending a science faculty forum on transformation, it occurred to me that a group of people who work in our faculty were not present, namely, the staff of outsourced companies who service our buildings and grounds.

In this sphere, UCT appears to have transformed in the wrong direction. In the early 1990s, for instance, cleaning staff had housing subsidies and medical aid; nowadays they may be (to coin a phrase) 'presently-disadvantaged'. I say, maybe, because I have failed to source information from the university on the conditions of service of these staff, so that I can judge for myself.

I am currently supervising a group of master's students who are assessing water-use by the farmers who supply a big retailer with agricultural produce. The notion of corporate citizenship requires a retailer to shoulder responsibility for influencing their supply chain in terms of practices on the farms, including the health and safety of workers and their conditions of service, animal rights, and environmental performance.

Outsourced companies supply services to UCT (if not products) in the form of a well-maintained campus. If we wish to advance the practice of UCT's corporate responsibility beyond a narrow focus on core business, then please let's incorporate the outsourced workers and their issues into transformation fora.

Dr Richard Hill
Department of Environmental and Geographical Science

Does democracy guarantee social justice?

I write this with just a few days to go before June 1 when the University Council sits to make an important decision about fee increases for 2006.

At the last two board meetings of the SRC, I asked my colleagues whether they felt we would be able to do justice to the student body at this meeting. What they said did not seem to agree with their body language, which I was watching closely.

For more effective representation, we have consequently asked the Chair of Council whether four additional SRC members can attend this meeting, along with Ross Esson and myself, both formal student representatives who have voting rights on Council.

The Freedom Charter unambiguously states that the "doors of learning shall be open to all". Section 29(1)(a) of the constitution states that "Everyone has the right to basic education–" while section 29(1)(b) states that "Everyone has the right to further education, which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible". (Italics my emphasis.) Despite my "diligent" attempt to research what the Constitutional Court has pronounced on the meaning of this section, I found no case law directly on this point. This section will clearly apply to members of our movement who are South African.

Our movement has a substantial number of international students. It is instructive to know whether the word "everyone" in the constitution also applies to them.

The words "basic education", "reasonable measures", "progressively available and accessible" also need to be unpacked. Despite the notion of institutional autonomy, are universities organs of state within the meaning of the section? If not, are we to rely on the horizontal application of the Bill of Rights, that is, as between non-state organs or individuals?

We have a substantial number of members of our movement who are under 18. They are therefore protected by section 28 of the Constitution which states: "A child's best interest is of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child." As far as I could establish, the Constitutional Court has not pronounced on the meaning of this section in respect of the right to education. These sections will have to be pronounced on in the near future.

I hope that as a supposedly leading institution, our fees policy will be proactive and in line with the views of the Constitional Court, well before the court has pronounced.

In times of crisis we always go back to things that have given us security in the past. Do we need the law or the Constitutional Court to establish elements of social justice or are these elements inherent in human society?

Maybe the reason we have no constitutional pronouncement on these important issues in 11 years of freedom is because the law is only a secondary force of social justice. The law cannot be the driver of social justice but only an instrument for it.

At the June sitting of Council we therefore do not need the law but hearts of social justice. The most important element in the right to education is its point of departure, namely access. Higher fees work against this right and make it merely political and legal rhetoric.

There will be debate and, if need be, voting. With only two student representatives, will our vote be almost insignificant? And yet voting is democracy. Democracy we all cherish as the lesser of the evils of forms of governance. Democracy and social justice are not always correlatives. We have a prima facie obligation to obey the dictates of democracy, but if the dictates of democracy are out weighed by other moral considerations should this "creature" still bind us? The question is what do we do when democracy fails to guarantee social justice?

High fees nip in the bud our transformation agenda because as the Vice-President Cde Mohammed Surty has correctly stated with regard to fee increments: "education shifts from being a fundamental right to a privilege of a few" and on transformation we continue to sail in a fish pond.

I hope that all involved will show commitment to the young and emphasise the social justice element of democracy, otherwise democracy becomes self-defeating and corrosive to society.

We have raised concerns on the relationship between national inflation and fee increments, the cost of supplementary exams, residence fees and the proposed fee policy. We have attempted to compare institutions across the country. I want to emphasise that we will do the best we can.

Democratically yours

Nqobizitha "Fire" Mlilo
SRC President 2004/5

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