“We come to it, at last. The great battle of our time.”
~ Gandalf, the White. The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King.
My journey to the University of Cape Town began in the sixth grade, in a biology class. I was bored. In the background I could hear the teacher’s voice droning on about radicles, plumules, and cotyledons. At the time I spent the majority of my classes lost in dreams about the hottest film of that year, The Matrix. It was 2000, I only saw the film that year when a friend’s parents acquired it on DVD because cinematic releases were often delayed in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital city. I did not understand the entire storyline but I was mesmerised by the robotic worlds and the fight scenes. As I replayed the Neo versus Morpheus matchup in the dojo in my mind, silently mouthing Laurence Fishburne’s flowing monologue, the teacher chose that very moment to ask me a question which unplugged me from my daydream.
“Rémy, do you want to get good marks?”
“What?” I stammered.
“I asked you if you want to get good marks.”
“Err…of course. Yes.”
“Then pay attention in class. If you don’t pay attention you won’t get good marks. If you don’t get good marks you won’t get into what, class?”
“St. Paul’s,” the class responded.
“Yes. And if you don’t get into St. Paul’s you won’t get into UCT.”
That was the academic roadmap that that particular teacher had designated for us at the Holy Cross Convent School, the Roman Catholic primary school I attended. It was a small private phrontistery which specialised in turning ragtag ruffians obsessed with television games and violent, dusty soccer matches on its sandy pitch into book-loving students with neat handwriting who would easily gain admission to any of the city’s high schools.
My primary school’s motto was In Cruce Salus, the Cross saves. But while Jesus saved, my parents stacked their pennies to put my siblings and I through Convent’s sought-after education system. They rendered unto Caesar what belonged to Caesar and quietly consoled themselves with the fact that through our education they were paving a brighter future for us and themselves. It was well-known attending the Holy Cross Convent primary school was an important milestone on the journey towards St. Paul’s College which, at the time, was nationally recognised as the best school in the country.
St. Paul’s boasted a diverse student body, an internationally respected Cambridge-based education system, and, in my opinion, the most impressive school blazers. Every time a former Convent student who attended St Paul’s came to visit our classrooms they would be wearing their royal blue blazer, decked with academic scrolls and other merits.
St. Paul’s ace was its ability to churn out university-ready students who went on to study at the five top-tier South African universities: the University of Cape Town (UCT); the University of Stellenbosch (Stellies); Rhodes University, in Grahamstown; the University of Pretoria (Tuks); and, the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), in Johannesburg. At the time, in the early 2000s and, sadly, at present, the best chance a Namibian had of receiving a valuable education was to leave the country and study abroad, provided, of course, they could rustle the necessary finances to support such ambitions.
Studying in South Africa was the high point of academic achievement. In some ways it still is. The prestige which comes from holding a South African university degree is unparalleled in Namibia. Parents boast about their children studying in Cape Town or Johannesburg; recently returned graduates look down their noses at their locally-educated counterparts; and employers fall over themselves to hire anyone with a South African qualification.
One university in particular is prized amongst the others: the University of Cape Town.
In sixth grade, I did not know much about the university but what I sieved from bywords in primary school from teachers and from my older sister who had passed through the Holy Cross Convent and was then studying at St. Paul’s. She was four grades ahead of me and, in tenth grade, already reading up on various universities and what they had to offer. It would not be long before she would have to run the application gauntlet.
But it was at that point in time, in that biology class, and in the weeks thereafter when my sister’s talk of UCT’s prestige and history made me realise I wanted to study there. She said UCT was where the best in Africa studied.
I was hung up on that notion: the best in Africa.
I wanted to be in that category. I had to be able to call myself the best. And if that is what I wanted then I had to get into St. Paul’s.
Going to St. Paul’s meant two things: you needed to have high marks in your seventh grade examinations and you had to possess the means to cover their tuition fees.
Although St. Paul’s founding motto was Caritate Fundati, founded in love (or charity), its roots were firmly sunk into private school money. St. Paul’s opened doors for you but as you walked through you had to drop the gatekeeper his dues.
And those were some hefty dues. A year’s tuition at St. Paul’s, in 2001 when I applied, without text books, uniform, and other study material, cost as much as a year’s academic tuition in UCT’s Faculty of Humanities today.
My sister was already at St. Paul’s burning holes in my parents’ pockets. When I applied to the same high school I knew the financial commitment I would be asking my parents to take on. To be honest, I did not care. I was going to study at St. Paul’s.
And then I was going to study at UCT. And I would be the best in Africa. Just like their slogans said.
So, in 2001, after working hard to get the required marks I was accepted to St. Paul’s College.
As early as a year into my high school career, I could see the flaws in what I would later realise was a systemic problem in education. While I had to have the smarts and my parents had to have the cash in order to continue attending St. Paul’s other children merely needed their parents to have deep pockets.
It was a bit of a killjoy, really, to realise not everyone had to work as I did to get into what was then Windhoek’s most prestigious private school. To be fair, everyone at St. Paul’s was subjected to the same academic pressure, the same high expectations to perform, but, really, if I have to be honest about it, there was a small cohort of smart and intelligent middle and upper middle-class children who were responsible for the school’s glowing academic reputation and some upper echelon morons whose parents dropped a year’s fees in one go just to have their kid associated with the brand.
During high school the message became clear to me and my middle class friends at St. Paul’s: our education was the jackpot our parents gambled on when they pulled themselves out of poverty in villages spread out across Africa. But, they knew, as the students currently protesting fees hikes in South Africa have come to realise, that if you want to win the lottery you have to make the money to buy a ticket.
Therein lay the crux of the matter: education, a recognised, protected right. But a right which could only be accessed through privilege.
There are no rights to privilege.
In exchange for my parents’ sweat St. Paul’s provided me with a rigorous HIGCSE education which permitted me to excel academically (I did well in a diverse pool of subjects ranging from mathematics to art); to challenge my athletic abilities (I played basketball, soccer, and ran track and field—I even tried out for hockey, tennis, and swimming once); and to have exposure to cultural and outreach programs (I was a member of the public speaking club, the English Olympiad, where my pen name was born, numerous science clubs, and the Rotary club).
By the time my five years at St. Paul’s were completed, in 2006, my parents had forked over a sizeable chunk of money for my high school education. I repaid it with a long trail of academic merits, trophies, and awards which got me accepted to study at the University of Cape Town in 2007.
My admission to UCT was not as clandestine as I expected it would be, though. I knew I stood a good chance of being accepted to study there—I was the all-rounder they said they wanted—but certainty when it came to securing an acceptance letter proved to be elusive: strong candidates from St. Paul’s had already been turned down by UCT and the costs of admission for foreign students to South African universities were becoming serious considerations for parents in Namibia.
I was accepted at Rhodes (where my sister was busy with her undergraduate in microbiology) which I turned down because my sister was studying there, because it was pricey, and because it was, by and large (or more precisely, small) Rhodes University.
It was not the University of Cape Town.
I also turned down Tuks.
“Who wants to go to Pretoria?” I asked my mother when she asked me why I did not respond to my acceptance letter.
I refused to apply to Stellies because of its strong Afrikaans heritage and my parents took Wits out of the question because it was in Johannesburg. They wanted a graduate, not a crime statistic.
So I sat and waited for my UCT acceptance letter. Because I was going to UCT.
Finally, at the tail end of January, in 2007, I received a letter from the University of Cape Town’s admission department which began with the following words:
Dear Mr Ngamije,
It gives us great pleasure to…
We had a loud, joyous family dinner that night. I was going to study at UCT. I was going to study with the best.
While I was about to commence what would be a seven-year adventure through UCT’s distinguished halls of learning my parents were about to begin a torturous financial journey.
The high following my acceptance to UCT was sobered by the financial implications of attending my chosen university. My parents had to pay for my fees, upfront, in order to secure my position as an international student. The sum they forked over to the University of Cape Town just for me to stand in the registration queue was so large and embarrassing I cannot even disguise it by saying it was “a lot of money in those days” because it is still a lot of money today.
After the EFTs had been completed and deposit slips had been copied and emailed to relevant departments for confirmation the prestige of attending Africa’s finest university had lost some of its lustre.
When I boarded the bus to Cape Town—after paying for my tuition flying was out of the question—my father’s parting words were not “have fun” or “carpe diem, my son.”
They were the sobering Kinyarwanda words of a man who had arranged his affairs so he could send his four children to university:
“Rémy, don’t fuck this up.”
And those were his words to me each year whenever I boarded the bus for another year in Cape Town, after my yearly registration fees, tuition, accommodation, stationery and academic supplies costs held up his wallet demanding everything he had.
“Don’t fuck this up.”
Do. Not. Fuck. This. Up.
To my credit I did not fuck it up. I fucked around for a while in my first year but I was always careful not to derail my academic train. I studied as much as any freshman (translation: rarely) and I partied as much as any other student (translation: often).
But, always, whenever the limits of excess were about to be reached I would hear my father’s words.
“Rémy, don’t fuck this up.”
My father’s stern voice would find me at odd moments and pull me out of the reveries which are staples of the university experience: at a raucous house party I would hear his words, make my excuses and head home; as I hit the button to re-spawn for the umpteenth time in a Counter-Strike session with some friends his cautions would prompt me to call it a night; or in a Long Street nightclub, tangled in the arms of some girl I had just met, I would see him standing in the back of the dancing, gyrating crowd mouthing his admonition. I would hastily mutter an apology and make a quick exit.
To be fair, his voice probably saved me from a plethora of foolish pursuits in Cape Town. But there were others it also stopped me from enjoying.
Like a few moments on Jameson Stairs, a favourite place for UCT students to bunk lectures while soaking in the vista of the southern and northern suburbs stretched out before them. Or an impromptu picnic on Muizenberg Beach. Or sunrising at Rhodes Memorial. Or generally taking part in the host of care-free, live-laugh-learn, YOLO-esque activities which make university “the best days of our lives.”
At the end of my first year, in 2007, I told my parents I wanted to change degrees. I was pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree at the time but I was not feeling it. I wanted to study literature. I wanted to write. I wanted to do English, the one subject I always enjoyed in high school.
It took me weeks to scrape together the courage to finally sit down with my parents in the lounge and tell them I wanted to start a new degree from scratch.
“So you won’t get credits?” my father asked.
“Err…no. None of my current courses are transferable.”
“So you have to start from the beginning?” my mother asked.
My mouth had gone dry. I sucked at my saliva glands for moisture before replying.
“And how long is this degree?” my father asked.
“Three years. But if I make the necessary grades in my first year I can apply to law school in my second year and do a combined law and English degree.”
My parents sat quietly.
“Then,” I said, “I would do two years of postgrad to get the full LLB degree.”
They continued to sit impassively.
“It…it would take five years in total,” I said.
I trailed off and left the duration of the degree hanging in the hair. We knew what I was leaving unsaid: another five years of UCT’s tuition fees which escalated every year like clockwork.
The law school idea was a last minute toss to sweeten the deal. I had thought of it at that very moment. I knew nothing about law, I did not even know what career awaited me after graduation. All I knew was that I needed a justifiable excuse for being a greater financial burden on my parents. I had snatched the dream of having an engineer in the family from them. I had to give them a doctor, accountant, or lawyer in return.
I went with the law because I would be able to study English on the side. I would figure out what to do with the law degree later.
After a week of tense silences at the dinner table whenever my studies cropped up in conversation my parents finally said I could change. They wanted me to be happy, they said, and if this was what I really wanted then they would support it.
I asked if fees would be a problem.
My father looked at me, quietly, and said five words which would become a second caution for my academic career at UCT from that moment.
“We will make a plan.”
And so they made plans and paid for my second re-entry into academia. In 2008 I enrolled in the Faculty of Humanities. I was finally studying the things I wanted to study: film, media, English literature, creative writing, and, to my surprise, after securing admission to the Faculty of Law in 2009, my legal studies.
The pressure which came with changing degrees was intense. While my parents made plans to keep me at UCT I made a plan to ensure I actually studied at UCT. I changed residences, cut off certain social circles, and reined in the partying. I started writing, attending lectures, taking notes, spending afternoons and evenings in the library.
I stopped chasing skirts too. Well, sort of.
It was easy for me to slot into the rhythms of an immersive academic lifestyle because I had all of the tools I needed to adjust my lifestyle. I knew how to plan my studies, how to sift for information, how to research. St. Paul’s taught me the value of discipline and working under pressure and, when I started taking on my legal studies, I was relieved to find my high school studying techniques to be quite effective.
I had to do what I had to do.
Because my parents were out making plans. They were balancing a household’s needs while paying four sets of fees: mine, a portion of my sister’s university tuition, and my brothers’ high school fees. Though they never complained about paying my fees, and though my fees were never in arrears, I knew they were strained to provide my siblings and I with comfortable, secure family environments and safe, stable academic lifestyles we needed to perform well in school and university.
They made serious plans.
The University of Cape Town’s motto is Spes Bona, good hope, but their fees department does not accept payment in hope, love, cupcakes, or “wait, I’m bright, I’m capable, I’m only two years away from completing this degree if you only give me a chance—”
No. They take cash.
Just like attending St. Paul’s, at UCT, in order to exercise the right to access an education you need to have the right background to open a door and the right financial credentials to keep the door open. During my time at UCT it was quite commonplace to commence a new year and miss a familiar face at registration. Many doors closed on many people, black and white.
Lottery. Ticket. Money to buy the ticket.
In 2010 I completed my first undergraduate degree: Bachelor of Laws and English. It was a momentous occasion. Our family finally had another graduate. My sister had successfully completed her Honours degree in microbiology in the meantime at the University of the Free State and she had secured a scholarship to pursue her Masters degree at the same institution.
I just had two years of law school left to get my full LLB degree. I had done it. I had graduated. I had not fucked it up.
But at the end of 2011 I did.
I flunked my second last year in law school. A stressful job, over-commitment in numerous campus activities, and, generally, not having a smart approach to the changing and increasing academic workload sent me crashing, burning, and crying home that year.
Another painful conversation about financing another year at UCT followed.
I was asking my parents to postpone whatever financial plans they had made for themselves and my younger brothers so I could have a second crack at my degree.
My parents said I could complete it. They would figure out ways to pay the fees.
“Just get it done,” they said.
Back to UCT I went, paranoid about failing, anxious about fees being paid up, desperate to complete my degree so I could bring my education’s taxation to an end.
I just had to get it done.
It is around that time, in 2012, I stopped being enamoured by my alma mater. My undergraduate years had been colourful and diverse—the Faculty of Humanities is an eclectic collection of cultures, races, and nationalities. But the postgraduate arm of my studies, at the Wilfred and Jules Kramer Law School, was black and white, polarised like the racial makeup of our law classes. Whether it was poor academic performance—which is one factor, or financial exclusion—which is another factor, black students evaporated from our classes leaving a largely monochrome white silt in our lecture halls.
The remaining black students would band together to share notes and form academic support groups. We all feared being cleaved from the herd; we shared jokes about being picked off one by one, about black guys not making it to the end credits.
We joked about it all because that was all we could do. Without exception, every single student in that law class was under pressure to pass and complete their studies. But nobody was under more pressure than the black students. For us, being in law school at UCT was hard. We were studying with people whose parents and grandparents had been involved with the practice of law since the first utterance of Roman-Dutch law came to South Africa. We did not have fathers we could follow to the bar; our mothers were not judges. We were being tasked with being the first people in our families to get degrees, to make inroads into professions hitherto unknown.
We were asked not to fuck up in an environment which almost always made us fuck it up; it was about just getting things done while our parents made plans and figured things out so that our fees were paid at the appointed time. Phone calls home would be cagey, short. Each conversation would end with a reminder to study hard, to take care. The subtle “and do not mess this up because we have so much riding on this, Rémy” went without saying, really.”
I just wanted to get out of the system.
I was pissed off by the kings’ ransoms my parents paid in tuition without receiving a princely education. By the time I completed my penultimate year of law school I was not even learning anything, I was just studying, spending the requisite time in lectures to get the necessary information to get the necessary marks. If there were debates to be had in law lectures I let other people pursue them; sometimes because I just did not understand the intricacies of a complex concept, but mostly because I could not be bothered to debate the nuances of the law with people who had too much time and money on their hands.
All that mattered to me was graduation, all that mattered was plugging the financial hole in my parents’ pockets.
All I really cared about was getting it done.
Of course, other factors unrelated to to the fees issue were at play in my life during law school, and all of them took their respective tolls. Law school is a gruelling undertaking anywhere in the world; the hours are long, the concepts are elusive and dense, and entire tracts of the Amazon are flattened to produce reams of paper for printing legal articles and cases with which one must be intimately familiar. To study law is to willingly agree that every day and every week you will be shellacked with reading material you will never complete. It is built into the premise of studying law. Also, the role personal motivation and discipline play in successfully completing a law degree—or any degree for that matter—cannot be overemphasised.
All of those I can deal with.
But what cannot count in your favour is the pernicious fear of failure, of squandering your parents’ money. There were nights, many of them, where I cried myself to sleep because I could calculate the financial implications of a failed test, an errant percentage in an assignment. There were days when I sat in lecture theatres, scared witless that I was messing up, that I was not trying my best. And whenever I think about that fear, that relentless pressure to do well at everything the first time round even though every new law course and every principle was foreign and new to me I can always bring it down to one overriding factor: the cost of studying at UCT.
In 2013, my parents paid my last dues to UCT.
I graduated in December that year. My degree was conferred on me the day after Nelson Mandela was laid to rest. Much was said in our graduation ceremony about UCT’s transformative goals, about its contribution to the creation of a diverse, well-educated, and racially diverse society. Nobody said anything about the fees, the yearly increases, or the potential hardships some families faced to put their children through the education system.
Even more words were said about the assembled graduates. We were described as being determined, conscientious, disciplined—which we were.
And then we were labelled as being the best.
“We’re not the best. We’re just the ones who could pay,” said a friend sitting next to me.
She had also repeated a year with me. We had both begged our parents to refinance our legal education. We both knew friends who possessed the talent to study law but who could no longer afford to insert a coin in the machine to continue; they had to forfeit the game.
When I was capped I could hear my parents’ breathe a sigh of relief all the way from Namibia. I was a two-time UCT graduate. I, along with the other assembled law students, had completed our diverse journeys through the University of Cape Town.
We were the smartest. We were the brightest. We were the best in Africa.
We were the ones who could pay.
Although I consider my family to be middle-class (we have a house, a car, two dogs, and we once watched Music Of The Heart together) it was a serious financial undertaking to go to university. My parents’ willingness to fund my academic pursuits is owed to them having tertiary qualifications of their own; they know what having degrees means in the working world, and they know what it means to a family to have graduates. Many years ago they were afforded opportunities to study in Belgium and in France, opportunities which allowed them to play pivotal roles in their families’ financial fortunes and success. So it was almost a given that tertiary education would be provided to my siblings and I when it was our turn to go to university.
But what prevents many people from attending and completing university education is not the absence of supportive and sacrificing parents like mine. It is the noticeable absence of one key ingredient which unlocks doors in every institution of learning: privilege.
Privilege is what you have when you are able to make considered decisions about what you want to study and where you want to study. It is what allows you to act on that decision.
When you can change a degree in the pursuit of academic and professional fulfilment, when you can drop a course or a degree because it is “not for you” or because “you’re just figuring things out, you know” and still be assured your parents or financial backers will be understanding or even lenient (I am looking at you Van Wilders) then you are privileged.
Privilege is what you have when you have never stood in line for financial aid, when you have the luxury of studying without worrying about whether your fees will be paid. It is what you have when postgraduate study does not represent lost income, when studying longer and further does not conflict with your parents’ approaching retirement age.
I am black and I have that privilege. White people have a greater degree of that privilege.
I am confident in saying anyone who has ever navigated any system of education will have acquired some kind of privilege—whether it is going to the right school so they could attend the right university, or dropping an alma mater’s name on a CV in order to drown out competing applicants.
That is privilege.
Not everyone has the means to take part in the education lottery. For many families, in Africa and the rest of the world, sending a child to university is the equivalent of sending a manned mission to Mars.
Where does one even start?
Firstly, to even conceive the idea of attending tertiary education, families need to have the confidence and belief that a university education is actually a possibility. Without that possibility it becomes futile to even suggest people must just dream big. Bluntly put, many families often cannot afford to dream big. They are fighting to put food on the table, to keep a roof over their head, and to live a life with whatever dignity the world can afford them.
Hungry people do not think about Mars. They think about the black holes in their stomach. They think about the minutiae of their daily lives: food, shelter, making it to the next day to worry, yet again, about making it to the next day.
Education, for many families, is just not in their life plans.
Secondly, even if the idea of traveling to Mars University has dawned on them the question of finance becomes a crucial issue to address: where does one find the money for launching that solitary probe to explore this alien world?
There are bursaries. But they come at a terrible price when a student is chained to a company after completing their studies. Bursaries are not flexible. They are fixed. They require a student to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives by the time they are eighteen. There are no faculty changes or cancellations without the expended fees being recalled by the bursary providers. Bursaries only work in instances where a student is prepared to secure an education—any education.
There are scholarships too. But their takeoffs are infrequent and they require applicants to adequately motivate their candidacy while carefully and skilfully flaunting their poverty in embarrassing detail. It is a delicate task to display capability and capacity while simultaneously showing an inability to raise the necessary funds for academic tuition. There is a staggering number of students at university who are classified as being too well-off to qualify for scholarship money but who are too poor to pay their tuition on their own.
Furthermore, scholarships are the ultimate inside club. Although great lengths are taken to publicise their availability one still needs to know where to find them and how to apply for them, two factors which disturbingly ensure scholarship recipients come from the same privileged backgrounds.
Thirdly, even if some students manage to land on Mars University survival in the rich, privileged climate is a challenge. Everyone else has a laptop they use for research, for typing assignments in the comfort of their dormitories. These newcomers have to write everything out by hand because they do not have laptops; some have never seen a computer. They think Google is a person and spend a couple of confused minutes in the library wondering how they can ask him a question about a book they need to borrow.
Then there is the problem of language. Academic English and academic Afrikaans are alien by their complexity. Reading and understanding academic literature are skills one cannot pick up in a term or a semester. They are mastered through years of training and reading from an early age, taught, in my case, by German nuns at a private primary school in Windhoek, willing to coach a promising student through the first hesitant steps of an English curriculum; they are honed, as I have seen in my scenario, by erudite private high school teachers who work out students’ minds with harder and harder texts, showing them how to decipher metaphors, how to sieve for information, how to critically analyse and summarise labyrinthine concepts.
University-level reading and analytical skills are taught from an early age. You cannot pick them up from casual interaction with the other organisms on Mars University.
University, then, is a hostile environment for anyone not in possession of the proper amount of privilege.
While the student protests in South Africa are concerned with the narrow issue of university fees, a thorough interrogation of access to tertiary education will lead to other questions about the privilege needed to sustain a successful university career. Because it is one thing to drop the fees but not to address the structural inequalities which make tertiary education a nightmare for the underprivileged.
Students are angry because not everyone has the means to meet the universities’ routine fee increases; furthermore, despite the increases not all universities allocate adequate resources to help students without histories of academic privilege to survive their curricula. They are angry because it takes many kinds of learning to create a country, a nation, and a world, but expensive university degrees have been chosen as the high watermarks for success, for escaping poverty.
A great majority of them are angry because they have been patiently standing in line to enter a club only the privileged can access. Their parents put aside their grievances in 1994, when the new South Africa was being conceived, and stood in line for the better lives and better educations they were told they would obtain for their children. 24 years later the children have replaced their parents in the long line outside that club, looking at other people bypass the queue simply because of who they are, because of privilege handed down in unfair ways from family to family.
They are angry because just as they are about to enter the club and dance along to this music they have been told will forever change their lives they are being told the cover charge is about to go up.
Money to buy the ticket.
A right, accessed through privilege.
No right to privilege.
The fees must fall.