Fifty years since his time spent on Robben Island, UCT's former chair of Council Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane called together the inaugural Robben Island Dialogues to address the many crises faced by South Africa.
“Thinking back to the island in 1963, I recall how a dream was born as I lay on a cold cement floor one night. It was a dream not just for South Africa, but for the whole of Africa. The quest for an Africa whose children are liberated, educated and have all the basic essentials for a decent and dignified life,” said the archbishop.
This dream has remained with the archbishop and has motivated him all his life. Although they were prisoners, and faced many hardships on the island, they were motivated by the fact that their vision for freedom and liberation would be realised.
As young men and women, they were angry, impatient and passionate, he remembers.
“At the same time, we were disciplined, eagerly soaking up the ideas, advice and plans from our elders, comrades and colleagues, to deliver liberation and freedom.”
He addressed the young attendees: “We need your energy, intellect and creativity. We need your ability to think of things in a different way.”
Fifty years since Robben Island
The entrance to Robben Island.
The journey to Robben Island is a little bit like being in South Africa right now: the boat trip can be turbulent, uncertain and a little scary.
So said Namhla Mniki-Mangaliso, director of African Monitor, as she opened the intergenerational discussion on the island.
The hope was that this could be a space where ordinary South Africans could reflect and have meaningful conversations about issues facing the country.
“We wanted to create a platform where we bring together a cross section of individuals who can start talking about the dream that was.”
She added that this needs to be done with the express intention of finding solutions, instead of endless talk-shops with no tangible outcomes or actionable solutions, as is too often the case.
In his address, the archbishop said, “We are, today, at a crossroads in our country. The winds of change are blowing again. In the more than 20 years since our democratic elections, some have become complacent and no longer feel the wind.
“We have allowed a morally bankrupt leadership to entrench itself. We have turned a blind eye to the desperation of vulnerable, poverty-stricken people. Some have become stinkingly rich, while others still grind out a daily existence in shacks, without the most basic facilities.”
Women and children, already at risk of daily violence, are all the more vulnerable in overcrowded informal settlements with no electricity, water or proper sanitation.
“Our students have been driven to the edge of anarchy in their struggle to get affordable education. Make no mistake: that wind is blowing again,” he added.
While there is much to concern South Africans, and despite the many squandered opportunities, the archbishop noted that the country has still made progress in service delivery, housing and healthcare.
“We remain on of the biggest economies in Africa, with good infrastructure, energy and technological resources. We have a solid regulatory framework – institutions such as the Constitutional Court, the public protector and our judiciary are independent and not afraid to assert themselves, [or] uphold accountability and justice,” he said.
An unsustainable system
The archbishop voiced extreme concern about the national treasury's decision not to budget for a 0% increase in university fees in 2017. In conjunction with ever-declining governmental funding, universities are growing increasingly financially dependent on student fees. This has resulted in a completely unsustainable higher education system.
“My call today to government is: fund a national plan for education. Forget about nuclear power,” said the archbishop.
Arguing that there is no rational reason to continue pursuing nuclear energy, the archbishop noted that doing so will only force South Africa deeper into national debt, from owing just under two trillion rand to owing three trillion rand.
“If we go the nuclear route, there is no way we will solve the education crisis, either now or in the future,” according to the archbishop.
In 1998 the archbishop had called on government to abandon the arms deal and put together a national plan for education.
“If we'd done so, we could today be adequately funding our tertiary institutions. I was, of course, ignored. And today we are in an educational crisis, if not resolved, will see the demise of our tertiary institutions within a decade.”
Minister Blade Nzimande's proposal to addressing the needs of poor students only provides short-term relief, he said.
The solution, argued the archbishop, lies between government and the private sector. The latter in particular will benefit most from the skills passed on by our universities. It is fitting, therefore, that the private sector should donate a fixed portion of their annual turnover to fund higher education.
“If government and the private sector were to take the initiative and come up with a comprehensive, well-thought-up and generously funded long-term plan, I believe that would go a long way towards persuading students that their plight is being heard and that meaningful action is being implemented,” he said.
The archbishop warned that, without immediate action, this generation will be blamed for closing down our universities and adding them to the ghost institutions of our continent.
Story Kate-Lyn Moore. Photos and video Saadiq Behardien.
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UCT's former chair of Council, Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, launches the Robben Island Dialogues
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