Margie Orford: Education Enables Freedom of Expression

29 Oct 2015
Margie Orford:  Education Enables Freedom of Expression

The last two weeks have seen a convulsion in tertiary education in South Africa. Students from all universities have come out in large numbers to protest the costs of an education that the majority of students and their hard-pressed families cannot afford. This unfolded in a nation still reeling from the shock of the massacre of the miners at Marikana. It feels like a miracle that no students were killed or seriously injured during the protests. A great number of writers signed our letter (here) addressed to the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, the Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande and the Vice Chancellors of the affected universities calling on them to safeguard the lives and welfare of the protesting students. We are relieved that, so far, they are safe and that charges have been dropped against students who were arrested.

Protests about an inadequate education and unfair access are not new. The 1976 protests in Soweto were a turning point in South Africa’s history and during the violent 1980s education served as a flashpoint. It is a travesty that twenty one years into our democracy we have seen the same standoff between students who are demanding something owed to them – a productive place within the society into which they were born and to which they wish to contribute.

An education – especially a tertiary education – is a hard-won thing in South Africa where the gulf between rich and poor is as marked as it ever was. An education enables that most foundational of rights – freedom of expression. It is key to a vibrant and growing economy as it is key to a cultural life and to literature.

PEN South Africa reiterates its call to the leadership of South Africa – politicians and professors – to find imaginative ways to move beyond the impasse that has bedeviled education and transformation – that wearied phrase that asks of us change, generosity and a new way of envisaging both the present and the future – so that the students who have quite rightfully been at the barricades – can return to class and become the educated young people they dream of being.

The one thing that writers do is imagine futures. A future of thwarted, angry young people is easy to see – it’s all around us right now. We can do something much better than that.

Margie Orford
PEN South Africa President

(Image courtesy Edinburgh Book Festival)