Free education time bomb

Ranjeni Munusamy
Picture: Moeletsi Mabe

President Jacob Zuma might be on his way out of office and cannot tell the difference between nuclear arms and nuclear energy ‚ but there are still remnants of strategic genius that dictate his moves.

Zuma is bamboozling his political opponents both inside and outside the ANC with his planned move to announce the introduction of free tertiary education in South Africa.

Which politician in their right mind would oppose such a plan? In a country such as ours where millions of people cannot afford food let alone education‚ of course free education is deemed a necessity. Bear in mind also that the student population will form the core of the electorate for the foreseeable future.

Who‚ therefore‚ would want to get on their wrong side by fighting Zuma’s plan that essentially gives in to the demands of the #FeesMustFall campaign?

Why do we need to be concerned about the free education plan devised by education activist Morris Masutha‚ known as “the son-in-law”? In a society that is punch-drunk from the multitude of allegations of corruption and unethical conduct by the president and his coterie‚ does it matter that the plan defies everything that the Treasury has said about free education being unaffordable?

Since it fulfills a noble objective‚ could this not in fact be the one thing Zuma gifts the country amid the flood of disasters he unleashed? Could free education be the issue that defines his legacy?

The answer is no. Masutha gained access to the president and the corridors of power through his relationship with the president’s daughter. He might be a brilliant scholar in the education sector and have carried out remarkable work to improve the learning prospects of children in rural areas through his NGO.

But he is not employed by the government to review the entire national budget and decide who is entitled to get money and how much. The finance ministry and Treasury exist to do precisely that.

It is not the job of a boy wonder who happens to have a back channel to a president who is already being dictated to by a host of his benefactors and “keepers”.

The entire democratic system is being undermined by a parallel state that exists purely through people’s access to and relationships with the president. This is unconstitutional. The viability and sustainability of Masutha’s plan has not been tested. He has presented his proposals to the Heher Commission that spent time and money investigating the feasibility of free higher education. Zuma has not as yet shared the findings of the commission with the country and is keeping the entire higher education sector dangling.

We do not know what Judge Jonathan Heher’s response was to Masutha’s proposal. So‚ what is the hold-up in releasing the report? According to senior government officials and ANC insiders‚ the report is being held back so that Minister Jeff Radebe and his director-general‚ Mpumi Mpofu‚ can slice through departmental budgets across the state system to make R40-billion available to implement the plan.

The reason they rang the alarm bells is that they know this will be a disaster of epic proportions. Besides triggering further economic turbulence‚ through among other things another credit ratings downgrade and investor flight‚ free education entails more than just throwing money at the sector.

And while the ministry in the presidency might be cutting corners to make money immediately available for the introduction of free education‚ the concern is whether this is sustainable for every budget year from now on. Just like the grand plans for a nuclear build programme‚ there is simply no money to finance free higher education when South Africa remains on a rapid downward trajectory‚ with low growth‚ diminishing revenue and a bulging deficit.

It is for this reason that the ANC maintained a cautious approach to the issue at its July national policy conference. It did not adopt free tertiary education as policy but said instead there should be a “progressive introduction of free education for the poor and subsidised education for the working class and middle strata”.

The recommendation to the December ANC national conference was: “The ANC must continue to strengthen measures that will improve access to higher education with the ultimate goal of achieving free higher education for the poor and missing middle.”

This means that free tertiary education is not government policy. It would be unprecedented and frankly bizarre for a president to announce funding for a programme that is not the policy of government.

The education qualifications and intentions of the feisty Masutha are not in question. The problem is what entitles him‚ above every other person in the country‚ to develop government policy and budgets‚ apart from his personal relationship with the president. If those charged with managing the national budget and higher education sector are being undermined‚ including the finance and higher education ministers‚ why is this so?

The question is, who is going to stop Zuma? Once the plan is announced‚ how can it be undone if it is not viable? Will the student population accept a reversal down the line?

This will not be Zuma’s dilemma but that of his successor. Could this be the reason Zuma is bequeathing South Africa a massive time bomb? Hopefully‚ one Cyril Ramaphosa is paying attention.

  • Ranjeni Munusamy is associate editor of analysis of The Times

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