Education close to Free State premier’s heart
Free State premier Ace Magashule is devoted to giving poor students a chance to learn – and believes that rich people must pay to educate their children
IT’S one of the burning issues of our time: the call for free tertiary education. Recent protests at campuses across the country showed once again that young South Africans want nothing more than to learn without being burdened by debt afterwards. It’s not only the crippling fees that are causing complaint. Accommodation, study materials, food, data . . . it all adds up, and many students 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 just won’t be possible in the near future, according to the commission, headed by retired judge Jonathan Heher.
Education is an issue 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 YOU. “It happens in many countries. But it’s based on merit. You can’t always pay for people who aren’t 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 no one in his province 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 passion hasn’t gone unnoticed. Bahcesehir University in Istanbul recently conferred an honorary PhD on the premier for his years of service and dedication to education.
He’s modest about the 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 residence in Bloemfontein surrounded by never-ending views of hills, Magashule (58) can’t stop talking about some 1 100
students the province has sent to study in Russia, India, Cuba, Portugal, Turkey and Germany.
In January he’ll 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 are 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 rate of 93,2%.
Magashule 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 the province to provide many bursaries, he says. But the private sector helps too.
“You can’t have 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’s served as premier for nearly 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. But 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. And taking care of students must be done holistically: “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 successful mostly because of discipline, he says proudly. They’re taken to military barracks and are trained in day camps by military drill masters. “In the barracks they’re taught the importance of making your bed, cleanliness, being on time and respecting your superiors.”
And all this translates to good results, and better resources for his province. The Free State will be a great, vibrant place to live by 2020 – if they keep up this pace of development, he says.
MAGASHULE believes in giving students a chance because he got a helping hand to get where he is. His mother worked as a domestic worker in Sasolburg for a De Villiers family, who helped to pay his high school fees and also gave him money when he was studying at the University of Fort Hare. The only condition for being helped was that he pass. Now he’s paying it forward.
He’s fascinated by countries that do wonderful things for their citizens, he says, and always tries to do the same in his province.
The Free State’s bursaries aren’t only for science students. Some are for studying hospitality in Portugal and Madeira, while others have covered photography studies.
“When the students come back they’ll be able to open their own catering companies or get employment in the hospitality industry.”
He could go on and on about his students, he says. But enough about them for now – what’s next for him when his term finishes?
Reports say some within the ANC want him to replace secretary general Gwede Mantashe after the party’s elective congress in December. He’s also been touted by some factions as a possible candidate for the deputy president position.
“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 socalled 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’d be happy to go back to Parys, where he was born, and perhaps become the mayor to help uplift the standard of living there, he says.
But, he adds, it’s politics and anything can happen. S
FAR LEFT: Magashule at his official residence in Bloemfontein. ABOVE: With President Jacob Zuma at the unveiling of a statue of Nelson Mandela in Mangaung. LEFT: The premier bids farewell to a group of students selected to study in Portugal.GOV.ZA