So all that stoning of cars, blocking of the Zomba road to prevent Dr Jill Biden from passing, burning of a policeman’s hat, running battles with the Malawi police, arrests, slapping of two hapless girls by the police, teargas and beatings can end in a whimper like this?
In case you’re surprised about my rant, university students met President Peter Mutharika the other day, following great unrest on at least three major campuses of the University of Malawi. The unrest was triggered by the raising of the fees from K275,000 to K400,000 per student per annum.
Cries on these campuses echoed those of the Fees Must Fall movement we saw earlier in the year at South African universities. We were not even creative enough to come up with our own click-bait slogans; we just lifted from the pocket of South African counterparts.
And so when it was announced that the President was going to meet students on Thursday this week, my expectations were that the fees would remain at K275,000.
To be clear, my stated position on this is that I am indifferent as to whether the fees rise or remain the same. Either way, the poorest of the poor cannot afford both the old and the new fees. Instead, the Higher Education Students Loan and Grants Board (HESLGB) should be given enough resources to ensure that no student should be left behind on account of failure to afford fees.
I have argued on this page that we are wasting a lot of resources on things that are not a priority to us. As we speak, some cabinet ministers and permanent secretaries are signing for allowances, in one case for as much as K7 million for one cabinet minister recently, for a trip that she never undertook (the event she was expected to travel to Cameroon for is now gone, and the money was never refunded from the government office that gave it to her).
A permanent secretary pocketed allowances of up to 20 days for a trip she never undertook – and she is not alone in this as almost the entire Capital Hill does this anyway.
The K577 billion audit report talks of $19 million (K13 billion) that must be recovered because the teargas canisters and rubber bullets supplied by one supplier turned out to be fraudulent, with the goods severely overpriced and sometimes not even delivered.
If all this rot were to be addressed, there would be no need to be talking about raising university fees in the first place. Our focus would be on putting enough money in the pot of the HESLGB to ensure that every child who is truly needy is indeed assisted by the Board.
And so, maybe instead of investing our energies cutting and pasting South African Fees Must Fall hashtags, let us put pressure on our government to commit resources that should be helping at least 10,000 students per year. Earlier this year, in an interview with Capital Radio, Chris Chisoni said out of 7,000 applicants, only 4,662 could be assisted, leaving out 2,300 truly needy students.
In another forum, somebody told a story of Damiano. He scored 14 points at the Malawi School Certificate of Education. Then he was selected to enter the University of Malawi’s Polytechnic campus. At the time the results came out, he was working as a guard at Nyambadwe. He tried to look for K275,000 to enter the university but failed. He applied for a loan but his application did not succeed.
Now, five years down the line, Damiano’s former classmates in secondary school are accountants in offices with shiny floors in Victoria Avenue, while poor Damiano remains a guard at Nyambadwe.
K275,000 is not easy money for the poor. There are many who are struggling to raise it. Which is why it came as a great surprise to hear that after all that jazz, all the student representatives could manage was a paltry K50,000 drop from K400,000.
I did not hear, from those discussions, that the number of students that can be assisted by the HESLGB has risen from 4,662 to, say, 7,000 or 10,000. All we heard was the drop from K400,000 to K350,000.
Why, then, did these students bother to create a diplomatic embarrassment for Malawi? Why did they smash cars of poor innocent people? For K50,000? Are they smoking Indian hemp or what?
If you’re going to smash my car, then it had better be for a good reason, and K50,000 is not it.
Students must not take us all for suckers. They need to take to streets for genuine reasons. They should not consider smashing cars a hobby of some sort, that they can just get out of their hostels one day and start stoning cars.
No, university students, you’re such a monumental shame and a colossal disgrace. You can’t smash our cars for K50,000.
This, by the way, is not the President’s fault. He gave you the chance. But maybe you were star-struck. Maybe you reduced yourselves to shivering wrecks in the presence of the high and mighty. You failed to drive home your points. You failed to be forceful in your bargain. In the end, you left the negotiating room like a defeated dog that whimpers with a tail between its legs.
But then, anyway, you have accepted the new fees, so we should no longer hear any noises now. Go to bed, naughty children. If you try to smash my car again, you and I will have words. Shameful trouble-makers!