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Opinions of Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Columnist: Jacqueline Tizora

The real price of a black person’s degree in South Africa

The protests currently underway at University of Cape Town (UCT) are against financial exclusion that students become victims to with fees increasing annually. Next year it is set to increase by 10.3%. Therefore attending a university is becoming even more inaccessible to most black students and for those who can ‘afford’ tertiary education, the price tag attached to receiving a degree is at an unreasonable high.

The University of Cape Town has one of the best financial support schemes in the country and arguably in Africa too. The poorest south african students from families that earn less than R120 000 (USD 9,000) a year are eligible to receive full funding as well as an allowance package that is expected to cover books, accommodation, travel and food. Whether this system is a feasible means of financial support, I’ll cover later on.

So, what about the middle class black students that are ‘too rich’ for financial aid, yet too poor to afford the fees upfront? I say black middle class, because there is a large difference between the black and white middle class in South Africa. Often any black person that does not qualify for social grants is seen as middle class. With this said, to be considered black middle class your total familial income has to be more than R12 000 (USD 910) a month. Still a meagre amount that can barely support a family of three. This, compared to white middle class, is not measured with the same ruler. In the white middle class there is often still some influence of familial wealth on the family’s current economic standing. This is privilege. White privilege.

So, middle class black students are forced to take out study loans from a bank. These loans, applied for annually, become even more difficult to obtain with the debt of the previous years’ loan being taken into account to consider the student’s eligibility. Black middle class students then often find themselves in their final year without funding and unable to continue their studies resulting in financial exclusion.

The solution many people think of is to increase funding made available by the government to take into consideration those black students left marginalized by their supposed wealth. But after some calculations and reflections I realise that might put us through university, but at what cost exactly?

I will give an example here. Say you are a black student on financial aid, and you plan to study a four-year degree. Let’s say that despite all the extra trials and tribulations life throws at you for just being black, you finish your degree in the record time. With university fees as high as R120 000 per year, you as a graduate are already knee deep in half a million rand (USD 36,000) of debt after four years. A debt you have to pay off with interest for the rest of your working life. So, you hope to find a job that can help you pay off this debt, allow you to support your family as well as support a partner and children and also avail better opportunities to them than you had, right?

Firstly, finding a job that will pay a black person well is not as simple as just having an impressive CV. Statistics and first hand accounts from my mother and her friends show that in South Africa, black people are always paid less than their white peers with the same/less experience and qualifications in the same position as them. Don’t believe this is a reality? Ask black parents, or better yet, white employers unexpectedly whether white people earn more and watch the colour drain from their face leaving them so pale the answer to your question is so clear.

So, finding a job that will pay you enough to allow you to pay for the degree that got you the job is another struggle. Now, ask yourself exactly how much is a black person’s degree worth? Are we in fact paying more for a degree than we should for a degree that will keep us in debt? Will we ever see our money’s worth?

Those that would argue that they know some really rich black people, so much richer than the white people they know. Let’s settle that argument now and forever. That argument is never applicable in any circumstance, those families are exceptions and can therefore never be used as a rule of thumb. However, if you want these families to be rules and not exceptions. Use your whiteness to help create a society that frees black people from an existence of oppression. Then once that’s been achieved you can, by all means, drop that argument in any conversation as a valid rebuttal. But for now, just don’t.

Despite degrees costing black families an arm and a leg and in fact result in further discrimination in the workplace, the value of the degree to us is priceless really. That piece of paper means so much not only to us as the graduate, but even more to our grandparents, their neighbours and anyone actively involved in our lives. It’s a sign of achievement for all these people alike, the best ice breaker for any black grandparent in any conversation is to be able to say their kin has a degree. Most often it’s the first one in the family. It’s a symbol that some good has in fact come out of their hardship and that the apple fell very far from the tree and landed right in front of a very high and whitewashed picket fence separating black graduates and white privilege.

A degree is a ticket out of extreme poverty and is emblematic of the older generation’s ideology that a degree means the playing fields are now even and that their grandchild has every opportunity to succeed and become as rich as the white man. This, obviously, is not true at all. But I would never be able to tell my grandmother about the harsh reality of discrimination in the workplace I’m about to experience. I would not dare downplay the one thing she never in all her life expected to come out of scrubbing floors and caring for white babies 7 days a week.

Jacqueline Tizora is a student at the University of Cape Town, currently residing in Amsterdam for a minor in International Journalism at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam.