To the Student Movements of 2016

Dear Students,

The events witnessed at the country’s tertiary education institutions this year would have been very confusing to a foreign observer. The moving targets of your ire alternated from colonial era statues, through the prohibitive cost of tertiary education to outsourced services at universities. There was a sweeping wave of disaffection, especially among Black students, and the foreign observer would be forgiven for thinking South Africa was experiencing its own “Arab Spring”. And, just as the uprising was gaining sympathy from parents and university staff alike, it was marred by violence that did not make sense at all.

What saddened me most was that, in the midst of all this, 40 years after the June 16 1976 uprising over the poor quality of education for Blacks, 21 of them under a democratic government, the elusive issue of attaining access to good quality education for the Black child had still not been resolved. 

21 years on, despite the declaration in the Freedom Charter that “the doors of learning and of culture shall be opened” and in spite of our Constitution conferring on all our citizens the right to education, our Government has still not come up with a plan to address the realization of these ideals comprehensively.

I have observed your actions on national television, I have discerned your frustration and pain, equalled only by the passion with which you seem to be pursuing a struggle that should have ended a generation ago. Some of you left your rural origins, against all odds, reached the strange environment of the university cities, enduring cultural shock of untold proportions, all in pursuance of a good education. 

I, too, had seemingly insurmountable obstacles placed before me as I pursued the dream of being the first Black pharmacist in Galeshewe, Kimberley. 

I enrolled for Pharmacy at the University of the North, Turfloop, in 1976. In line with apartheid education dictates of the time, which had Whites-only universities and inferior, less-resourced ones for Blacks, Turfloop was reserved for the non-Nguni groups – Tswana, Sotho, Venda and Shangaan – while the Zulu-speaking and Xhosa-speaking South Africans could only enrol at the universities of Zululand and Fort Hare respectively. However, as Turf was the only Black university which offered pharmacy, it was open to all other ethnic groups for pharmacy.

I recall that, whereas there were about 120 first-year students in the pharmacy first year, the second year facility could accommodate only 30 students. Reflecting on this later in life, I have always believed that this was a deliberate design by the apartheid government intended to limit the number of Black pharmacy graduates. Owing to various reasons, at least 5 of the 30 places would already be taken. Thus, it was a reasonable expectation that no more than 25 of those who passed their first year would be enrolled in the second year class.

I have no way of knowing if I would have successfully negotiated the hurdles of getting into second year, as I left the university following repeated and protracted disruptions as the spirit of the Soweto uprisings engulfed our campus. I left the country later that year. For the record, I persevered and eventually qualified as a pharmacist.

I consider myself privileged to have achieved my dreams. However, countless others paid with their lives and did not get to enjoy the fruits of liberation. All of us – parents, government, students and educators – owe it to the memory of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice to ensure that you receive decent education.

Amidst all the disturbing acts of wanton destruction, arson and the occasional racial confrontation which characterized the uprisings of earlier this year, I saw glimpses of Black and White students reaching out to each other, even emerging from the same trenches to confront “the system”. You are the future elite of this Nation in the making, and my vision is of you achieving your aims and going on to tackle the cronyism and corruption that is consuming our country and bring about the non-racialism that those before you failed to achieve.

With single-mindedness of purpose and discipline, you will have the nation behind you.

Olehile Bada Pharasi.

Olehile Bada Pharasi was active non-partisan student during the 1976 Soweto Uprising and later joined the ANC in Botswana. Pharasi is the immediate past President of the South African Pharmacy Council and has headed a Ministerial Task Team on Medicines Procurement in the public sector.