Free State premier Ace Magashule on making higher education free for deserving learners in his province
Free State premier Ace Magashule is incredibly proud of the opportunities his province is giving worthy students – and he says it’s all about paying it forward
IT’S one of the burning issues of our time: the call for free tertiary education. Recent protests at campuses across the country proved once again young South Africans want nothing more than to learn without being burdened by debt afterwards. And it’s not only the crippling fees that are causing complaint. Accommodation, study materials, food, data . . . everything adds up, so many students simply can’t afford to pay. The recently leaked Heher Commission’s report into free education isn’t doing much to calm frayed tempers. Free tertiary education will just not be possible in the near future, according to recommendations from the commission, headed by retired judge Jonathan Heher.
This issue of education is something that’s close to the heart of Free State premier Ace Magashule. The man seen as a staunch Zuma loyalist isn’t against free education for those who can’t afford it.
“The government must take care of the poor,” he tells DRUM. “It happens in many countries. But it’s based on merit. You can’t always pay for people who are not performing.”
The rich must pay for the education of their children, he believes. “As a premier I must pay for the education of my children because I earn more than R2 million a year,” he says.
Magashule is doing his bit to ensure, in his province, no one is left behind. He could be dead tired from back-to-back ceremonies and events but get him started on the subject and he comes alive.
His dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed. The premier was recently conferred with an honorary PhD by Bahcesehir University in Istanbul for his years of service and dedication to education.
He’s modest about his achievement. “It isn’t for me as an individual, it’s rather an acknowledgment of the good work done by all of us who continue to serve our people with utmost humility.”
TODAY, sitting in his Cape Dutch- style mansion in Bloemfontein surrounded by never-ending views of hills, Magashule ( 58) can’t stop talking about the more than
1 100 students the province has sent to study abroad in Russia, India, Cuba, Portugal, Turkey and Germany.
In January they’ll will send 128 more to Brazil, six to Canada and five to Washington DC to study towards their PhDs. The bursaries include accommodation and food, and cover all the students’ needs.
The province spends the bulk of its budget on education. It’s the top priority, Magashule tells us. The results of that spending were clear: the Free State produced the highest number of pupils who passed their matric exams last year. The largely rural province also achieved the country’s best result with an overall pass mark of 93,2%.
He allocated R38,7 billion over the 2016 medium-term expenditure framework to education. Of this, R12 billion was for the 2016/17 financial year, about R13 billion for 2017/18 and R13,7 billion for 2018/19.
This makes it possible for them to give many bursaries, he says. But they also get help from the private sector. “You can’t have a radical economic transformation if you don’t have good education,” Magashule believes. “We have 1 103 students studying overseas. We have sent more students abroad than any other province in the country.
Magashule, who has served for nine years, has big plans for his province – even with only one year left in his term. These range from opening an IT academy in the Free State to sending young women to work with scientists in Bulgaria to research a vaccine for HIV.
“We’re sending them to Bulgaria for a year to do research there because that country is very advanced when it comes to finding a vaccine for HIV.”
He has two grown sons, Thato and Tshepiso, reported to be working for the controversial Gupta family. He doesn’t talk much about his family and is more interested in talking about his success stories with the bursary schemes.
Magashule says the Free State education bursary is open to all youth, irrespective of race. Taking care of students must be done holistically, he believes. “You can give a bursary to a child but if he or she doesn’t have a place to stay then you’re not solving the problem.”
His students are mostly successful because of discipline, he says proudly. They’re taken to military barracks and are trained in day camps by military drill instructors. “In the military barracks they’re taught it’s important to make up your bed, cleanliness, be on time and to respect your superiors.”
And all this translates to good results, and better resources for his province, he says. The Free State will be a great, vibrant place to live in by 2020, he believes – if they keep up this pace of development.
HE BELIEVES in giving students a chance because he himself got a helping hand to get where he is, Magashule says. His mother worked as a domestic worker in Sasolburg for the De Villiers family, who helped pay for his high school fees and gave him money when he was studying at the University of Fort Hare. The only condition for being helped, he says, was that he pass.
Now he’s paying it forward. He’s always fascinated by countries that do wonderful things for their citizens, he says, and tries to do the same in his province.
Their bursaries aren’t inclined only towards the sciences, though. Some of the learners are given bursaries to study hospitality in Portugal and Madeira, while others have studied photography.
“When they come back they’ll be able to open their own catering companies or get employment in the hospitality industry,” he says.
He could go on and on about his students, he says. But enough about them for now – what is next for him when his term finishes?
There are reports some within the ANC want him to replace secretary general Gwede Mantashe after the party’s elective congress in December. His name has also been touted as a possibility for the deputy president position by certain factions. “I don’t want to be secretary general,” he says firmly. “In 2012 I was nominated for the national executive committee and I declined. I’m not ambitious.”
And this has nothing to do with the reported waning of power of the so-called premier league, which Magashule is said to be a part of. The premier league is a media creation, he says, and there’ll be all kinds of stories. But not being ambitious doesn’t mean he’ll be stepping out of the spotlight altogether.
He would be happy to go back to Parys, where he was born, and perhaps become a mayor to help uplift the standard of living there, he says.
But, he adds, it’s politics and anything can happen.
FAR LEFT: Free State premier Ace Magashule at his residence in Bloemfontein. ABOVE: He’s said to be a firm supporter of President Jacob Zuma. LEFT: Ace says he’s motivated by spending time with young people and hearing how they want to improve their lives.