Who's afraid of the Sasco wolf?; Banking on the banks; Sharper than blade?

Refocus 2/2.

The notion that the government could use the Telkom deal to throw a quick R 100 million at potentially critical students is only one of many signs of just how scared of Sasco the authorities -academic and governmental - have become. Trevor Manuel's budget was known far in advance to include tough cuts in many sectors and there was, accordingly, energetic lobbying by many groups hoping to avoid the axe.

Even such favoured groups as Nafcoc (who wanted forgiveness for pre-1994 tax arrears) got the brush-off, but once trouble began on the campuses the government immediately capitulated, allowing Education Minister Bengu to announce hundreds of millions extra for student loans and grants.

But the same desperate keenness to be in Sasco's good books could be seen by the eagerness of many university principals (with Wits' Robert Charlton in the van) to march arm in arm with Sasco to demonstrate against university funding cuts. Charlton has, in fact, been so deferential to Sasco wishes that when the South African Liberal Students' Association won the Wits SRC election they had to take legal action to get Wits to allow them to take their rightful place on the senior appointments selection committee - though Sasco has had no such difficulty.

Similarly, the University of Natal (Durban) is once again negotiating with a Sasco 'leader', Panyaza Lesufi, who is not an accredited student at all. This is all the more striking when one remembers how the celebrated affair of Knowledge Mdlalose -another non-accredited student leader' - brought UND to its knees a few years ago.

Not surprisingly, Sasco activists, realising they are pushing on an open door, have redoubled their demands. At the Eastern Cape Technikon these demands included the construction of housing for themselves and the provision of cars for the SRC. At UND recent Sasco demands have included the provision of cell phones by the university to the SRC. These boys - Sasco activists are invariably male - are really taking to heart Mae West's famous dictum that 'too much of a good thing can be wonderful'.


The league table published by The Star of outstanding fees and loans owed by students to higher education institutions contained some notable errors - it overestimated the University of Natal's debt by a factor of 10., for example - and omissions: the University of Durban-Westville's debt of R 11.5 million was left out and the University of Cape Town once again managed to avoid scrutiny altogether.

Nonetheless, the figures make interesting reading in light of the recent talk of bankruptcy at Fort Hare and the Education Minister's statement that not all universities can be expected to survive, it is also worth noting that the expectation of debt repayment is often low: the University of the Western Cape expects to retrieve only 20% of the R34.5million, it is owed, for example. What this really means is that many of these universities are now depending on their overdrafts and that the invisible key actor in their drama is the bank manager who determines their overdraft limit. In practice many of these universities are probably technically bankrupt right now.

Local government debt, at R26 billion, is enormously higher and the larger part of the debt consists of stock issues and government loans. But R2.4 billion is also owed to the commercial banks, who thus have a not dissimilar role in relation to the hundreds of local authorities who are writing out cheques for their electricity and salary bills which will in some cases take them into overdraft. Already we have seen the lights switched off in Pietersburg because the Northern Province legislature hasn't paid its electricity bill since last September.

In practice the banks are counting on the government to bail out these bad debts. So, in effect, are many municipalities and universities. Under apartheid banks got used to the notion that bantustans could run up huge debts because Pretoria would, in the end, bale them out. The banks must have sweated when bantustans indulged in a last great orgy of spending and stealing in 1990-94, but in the end the ANC government behaved like a lamb and shouldered even these disgraceful debts. Its reputation as a soft touch was further reinforced when it then simply forgave the Namibian debt.

But Trevor Manuel cannot afford the idea to become entrenched that the state is an always-willing lender of last resort: all notion of fiscal discipline would fly out of the window. Moreover, if the government decides to bail out bankrupt municipalities and universities it will merely persuade others that it was foolish of them ever to have tried to balance their budgets.

One alternative would be to declare bankrupt some very symbolic communities and institutions -and to make the banks feel that they should never lend to them again. A third option would be for the state to get much more involved, setting fee levels, cash limits, rate-capping and the like. This, too, is unlikely to find favour with Mr Manuel: it is, after all, exactly what Mrs Thatcher did. It may be considerations like this that lie behind the Finance Ministry's recent talk of achieving GEAR targets (that is, cutting the budget deficit to 3%) 'by the end of the century'- not in 1999, as scheduled, but in the year after the election.


Blade Nzimande, chairman of the parliamentary education committee, has recently made vocal attacks on Dr Mamphela Ramphele, castigating her for not challenging 'the terms of globalisation' and of 'knowledge production on a global level'.

It is not quite clear how exactly one does this: it is, surely, not as simple as taking the dog for a walk. Does one demonstrate against Bill Gates, object to the quotation of South African shares on global markets or simply decline to use the Internet? Remarkably, Blade seems to believe that he personally is 'engaging globalisation', 'challenging its terms' and generally giving it a hard time. The real bottom line here is that Nzimande wants universities to de-couple from the outside world in order to make lower standards here less visible and thus more possible - an amazing objective for a self-described 'educationalist'. Blade is attempting to disguise this crazy and nationally damaging cause by trying to suggest that someone like Dr Ramphele who resists it, is somehow guilty of selling out to international capitalism.

It is difficult to see how Dr Ramphele can top that but she ought, perhaps, to consider the way

Beethoven's noxious brother, Johann, bought a piece of land so that he could have visiting cards printed with the words 'Johann van Beethoven, Landowner. Ludwig responded by having his own card printed and dropping one at Johann's house: 'Ludwig van Beethoven, Brainowner'.