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The death of Nelson Mandela on 5 December 2013 was in a sense a wake-up call for South Africans, and a time to reflect on what has been achieved since ‘those magnificent days in late April 1994’ (as the editors of this volume put it) ‘when South Africans of all colours voted for the first time in a democratic election’. In a time of recall and reflection it is important to take account, not only of the dramatic events that grip the headlines, but also of other signposts that indicate the shape and characteristics of a society. The New South African Review looks, every year, at some of these signposts, and the essays in this fourth volume of the series again examine and analyse a broad spectrum of issues affecting the country. They tackle topics as diverse as the state of organised labour; food retailing; electricity generation; access to information; civil courage; the school system; and – looking outside the country to its place in the world – South Africa’s relationships with north-east Asia, with Israel and with its neighbours in the southern African region. Taken together, these essays give a multidimensional perspective on South Africa’s democracy as it turns twenty, and will be of interest to general readers while being particularly useful to students and researchers.
In a recent survey carried out for a board meeting of Higher Education South Africa (HESA), Jeffrey Mabelebele, chief executive office (CEO) of HESA, noted that at the beginning of 2013 there existed an avalanche of more than thirty policy initiatives initiated by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and other government departments, each underway and each with important ramifications for the sector. On the one hand, these policy projects focused on broad vision-type enterprises such as the Green Paper and (soon to be released) White Paper on post-school education and training and the ministerial committee to study the possibility of ‘free’ higher education. On the other hand, there are policy projects meant to affect the sector at the more operational level: the ministerial review of the funding of universities; a review of the norms and standards for student accommodation; new reporting regulations ostensibly to bring the universities into line with the reporting requirements of government departments; the establishment of a transformation oversight committee; and the establishment of a national application and information service (NAIS). This is an ambitious policy programme by any measure. The question is: what drives it? Is it simply the passion and drive of an activist minister or are there deeper reasons and concerns that create the impetus?
In 2012-2013 the minister of higher education and training, Dr BE Nzimande, placed five universities (more than 20 per cent of the institutions in the public higher education system) under administration on the basis that they were, in some form or other, dysfunctional. This is equivalent to disbanding the councils of the institutions, in some cases suspending the vice-chancellors and appointing an administrator to act as oneperson council/executive head. It would probably be accurate to estimate that about a third of the higher education system experiences poorly functioning university councils and/or poorly functioning administrative systems. This is seriously exacerbated (or even produced) by a weak national infrastructure including the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and the lack of capacity at the national Department of Higher Education – an infrastructure that has yet to fathom the complexities of the context and the serious fragility of many of the institutions.
A Fragile Democracy – Twenty Years On, the fourth New South African Review, is one of doubtless numerous attempts to characterise the state of South Africa some two decades after those magnificent days in late April 1994 when South Africans of all colours voted for the first time in a democratic election. As we write this, we are approaching the country's fourth such election, a significant indicator of the overall success of our democratic transition – for although there may prove to be wrinkles there is every expectation that the forthcoming contest will again be ‘free and fair’. Nonetheless, there are likely to be changes in the electoral landscape, there being significant prospect at time of writing that the ruling African National Congress's (ANC's) proportion of the vote will fall below 60 per cent, the level of electoral dominance it has consistently achieved hitherto. While the ANC can claim many triumphs, and can convincingly claim to have transformed South Africa for the better (materially and spiritually), there is nonetheless widespread discontent abroad. The ANC itself displays many divisions. The Tripartite Alliance (which links it to the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu)), is creaking; it is threatened by new opposition parties which appeal to disaffection – especially among the poor and those who feel excluded from the benefits of democracy – and even the established opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA) today seeks to cloak itself in the mantle of Mandela. Even while the ANC boasts about steady growth, more jobs, improved service delivery and better standards of living for the majority, critics point out that the economy is stagnating, unemployment remains stubbornly high, corruption flourishes, popular protest abounds, and government and many public services (notably the intelligence agencies and the police) have earned an alarming reputation for unaccountability. So we could go on – but we won't, as we would rather encourage our readers to engage with the wide-ranging set of original essays provided by our authors.