Let the debate be about what’s good for the country
If you want people to oppose a proposal, get President Jacob Zuma to endorse it. A reported plan by the president to spend billions the country cannot afford to fund free university for all has sparked a frenzy of fear.
As information leaked out, it turned out that this was not quite what he has in mind and that the plan is not a done deal.
Reports say he wants free higher education for people in households earning below R350,000 a year. He has not yet got his way because Treasury studies show it can only be done by raising tax or cutting back on necessities such as social grants. The plan was surely leaked by people in the government who want to stop it, which means the battle it has triggered is not over. There are good reasons to oppose the plan. While funding is needed for students who have the brains for higher education but not the money, R30,000 a month sets the bar way too high: it is hardly a poverty income.
In addition, the plan cannot be funded without cutting services or raising taxes. Since those who pay income taxes are better organised than the poor who rely on government services, free higher education for some will probably mean smaller grants or worse education or fewer street lights for others. The plan would also probably be a one-year wonder because money won’t be available for it in future. So it is fair to dismiss it as a populist gesture designed to avoid campus conflict for a year, leaving the problem to the next president’s government.
However, if a plan for free higher education for only some is a huge problem, how much more does this apply to the call to make it free for all?
Yet a recent book advocating this was greeted by commentators as an inspiration: the only reason why anyone had to pay for university or college, they said, was because the government wasted money. This is not, of course, what the Treasury studies that are now quoted so sympathetically say.
Why, then, was the free education for all demand not greeted with the same horror?
Because what passes for a policy debate here is not about what is good for the country but about which side you are on in the battle between the society’s insiders over who should control the government and decide what is best for millions of outsiders. And because, as a spate of new books remind us, the problems facing the country have been reduced to the actions of a single politician who is said to have zombie-like supernatural powers.
This is why, on higher education and other issues, the debate is not about what we need to do but which faction is doing it. It is also why, ironically, Zuma’s eagerness to portray himself as a champion of student activism could be good news for the poor.
Just as his ally, Bathabile Dlamini, has made sure decent people can no longer attack social grants, so Zuma may have ensured that free higher education for those who can afford it will now be seen not as a triumph for justice but as a way of giving the better-off a free ride at the expense of the poor. Even if that is not enough to defeat the plan now, it gives strong reason to reverse it later.
We would be better off if we debated policies on their merits, whoever proposes them. But, since this does not seem likely soon, whether we win or lose arguments will continue to depend on whether patronage politicians rally people against them by floating bad ideas.
WHAT PASSES FOR A POLICY DEBATE HERE … IS ABOUT WHICH SIDE YOU ARE ON IN THE BATTLE … OVER WHO SHOULD CONTROL THE GOVERNMENT