Why Zuma wants free higher ed­u­ca­tion amid lack of protest

Business Day - - FRONT PAGE - CAROL PA­TON Pa­ton is deputy ed­i­tor.

Where have all the stu­dents gone? Into li­braries and res­i­dences study­ing for ex­ams. Speak­ing as a par­ent, ex­actly where they should be.

Stu­dent protest on univer­sity cam­puses has all but fiz­zled out.

They man­aged a fleet­ing shut­down at the Univer­sity of Cape Town two weeks ago that gar­nered the sup­port of about 100 stu­dents. At Wits, where they were given the op­por­tu­nity by the new EFF-dom­i­nated Stu­dent Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Coun­cil, stu­dents voted not to shut down the univer­sity but to rather write ex­ams.

It is only at the Cape Penin­sula Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy (CPUT) and the Univer­sity of the Free State (UFS) that any sig­nif­i­cant mo­bil­i­sa­tion has been mounted. CPUT is now sur­rounded by a ring of ra­zor wire and armed se­cu­rity per­son­nel. It is quiet. At the UFS, stu­dents have been ar­rested and stu­dent ac­tivists say there is still some ten­sion.

The hordes of stu­dents who stormed Par­lia­ment in 2015 and who swarmed on to the lawns of the Union Build­ings have gone quiet.

On that day, Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma ob­served the drama from the safety of the West Wing. His ad­viser-inchief, then state se­cu­rity min­is­ter David Mahlobo, de­cided that it was un­safe for the pres­i­dent to ap­proach the lawns. So Zuma stayed away and the stu­dents went home empty-handed.

Now that the pres­sure from stu­dents has dis­si­pated, Zuma is pre­par­ing to an­nounce his rad­i­cal eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion plan of free higher ed­u­ca­tion for stu­dents with an an­nual fam­ily in­come lower than R350,000. To give ef­fect to this, he must cut bud­gets for roads, com­muter train ser­vices, school build­ing, the de­fence force and mu­nic­i­pal in­fra­struc­ture. The ef­fects will be far-reach­ing.

Why do it? As the ANC’s De­cem­ber con­fer­ence ap­proaches, Zuma needs a grand and rad­i­cal achieve­ment to ex­hibit to con­fer­ence del­e­gates.

By de­liv­er­ing free higher ed­u­ca­tion, he will do what no ANC leader be­fore him has done. He will de­liver rad­i­cal change where Nel­son Man­dela and Thabo Mbeki hung back. He will be the one to de­liver rad­i­cal eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion.

His an­nounce­ment has noth­ing to do with stu­dents. It is un­bri­dled pop­ulism.

Who in gov­ern­ment or the ANC will stand up to him? So far no one. Who­ever does will be stand­ing up to op­pose free higher ed­u­ca­tion. It’s not a bat­tle most politi­cians want to take on.

The ANC, which in July re­solved that the thresh­old for free univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion should be R150,000 (up from R122,000) is pow­er­less to take Zuma on. It long ago lost con­trol of its rogue pres­i­dent, who since 2014 has ac­cel­er­ated the loot­ing of state-owned en­ter­prises as if they are his fam­ily busi­ness.

Right now the ANC is deeply im­mersed in the mother of all bat­tles around who will be its next pres­i­dent.

The Cab­i­net has been timid so far. Af­ter Zuma in­formed Trea­sury di­rec­tor­gen­eral Dondo Mo­ga­jane and Fi­nance Min­is­ter Malusi Gi­gaba two weeks ago that he in­tended to an­nounce free higher ed­u­ca­tion, the Cab­i­net at its very next meet­ing de­lib­er­ated over the mat­ter. It was de­cided that the quest to cut the bud­get, led by the Trea­sury and the Depart­ment of Mon­i­tor­ing and Eval­u­a­tion in the Pres­i­dency, should con­tinue apace. Ap­par­ently ab­sent was any check on re­al­ity: what this would cost the coun­try and where the trade-offs would be made.


The pres­i­dent’s fis­cal com­mit­tee, which has re­placed the min­is­ters’ coun­cil on the bud­get, now de­lib­er­ates over the trade­offs. This com­mit­tee, which in­cludes Gi­gaba, Jeff Radebe, Naledi Pan­dor, Ebrahim Pa­tel, and Mmamoloko Kubayi, is piti­fully short of Trea­sury ex­pe­ri­ence. Dis­or­gan­ised and lack­ing in al­ter­na­tives, it is at the mercy of Zuma, who is sin­gle-mind­edly driv­ing a cal­cu­lated agenda.

So lack­ing in in­sight and ex­pe­ri­ence is this poor com­mit­tee that in Septem­ber, when it was faced with the choice of sell­ing the gov­ern­ment’s Telkom stake or breach­ing the ex­pen­di­ture ceil­ing in the medium-term bud­get pol­icy state­ment, it in­stead got duped into a false third op­tion: to auc­tion off the avail­able broad­band spec­trum to the high­est bid­der.

As only a small por­tion of this is avail­able and the ef­fect of an auc­tion on data prices is un­known, the mir­a­cle third op­tion has sunk even be­fore the com­mit­tee had a chance to float it.

Where is Deputy Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa in all of this? If he has played a lead­er­ship role in the Cab­i­net around the dam­age be­ing done to both the fis­cal frame­work and the Trea­sury through this de­ba­cle, no one I know is aware of it yet.

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