Free ed­u­ca­tion time bomb

Weekend Post (South Africa) - - OPINION - RAN­JENI MUNUSAMY

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 ful­fils 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 in- stead 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.

ý Ran­jeni Munusamy is as­so­ciate ed­i­tor of anal­y­sis of The Times

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