Ralph Mathekga

The politics of free education

2017-11-13 08:16
President Jacob Zuma  (Deaan Vivier, Gallo Images, Beeld)

President Jacob Zuma (Deaan Vivier, Gallo Images, Beeld)

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Reports have surfaced over the weekend indicating that President Jacob Zuma is planning to announce government's plan to provide free education at higher institutions of learning.

The Presidency has subsequently issued a statement pouring cold water on the reported impending announcement.

The story that the president intends to announce free education was rumoured some weeks ago already. A week before Dr. Blade Nzimande was removed as higher education minister, it was reported that the president wanted a loyalist at the education department to process the Fees Commission report.

It was further intimated that the president might replace Nzimande with Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma so that she could be the one to champion a radical policy shift, i.e. announce free tertiary education.

The same story is now back in the news, except for the fact that the president's Cabinet reshuffle did not result in Nzimande being replaced by Dlamini-Zuma, but by someone else.

Even if the Presidency denies it, chances are that there will be an announcement on free education simply because Zuma will not be able to resist the political mileage that he will gain from it.

Appeasing angry, disenchanted students who are beginning to listen to the EFF as an appealing alternative is something that Zuma would consider. By providing free education, he will also be clearing the road to the 2019 elections which is becoming more and more precarious for the ANC.

The call for free education has been supported by some academics and respected South Africans, including a retired judge. The campaign counts among the most sustained movements in democratic South Africa, comparable to the campaign that pushed government to provide free anti-retroviral medication to HIV/Aids patients in the country.

The main issue that has been raised against the provision of free education is affordability. The cost is said to be prohibitively high, and might entail that some South Africans forego certain services so that government can direct more funds towards free education, as it has already been reported.

I do not think Zuma is committed to market gimmicks and affordability talk.

If he announces free education, which I am convinced he will, he will have to do it quickly, as in before the ANC elective conference in December. This will assist Dlamini-Zuma's campaign, which has been relying on abstract messages such as radical economic transformation.

Upon the announcement by the president, Dlamini-Zuma can then add free education as a subheading to the radical economic transformation agenda. That nearly completes the picture of her candidacy.

Given that her opponent for the ANC presidency, Cyril Ramaphosa, has been running a campaign based on circumspection and maintaining a moderate posture towards the markets and the economy, Dlamini-Zuma will be the only candidate to become the instant custodian of free education.

The choice between Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma will be a choice between free education and a continuation of the status quo. This is, of course, a false choice in the sense that Dlamini-Zuma cannot provide free education without severe compromises being made in relation to other budgetary considerations, while Ramaphosa cannot continue with the status quo as far as funding and the state of higher education are concerned.

I won't be surprised if Dlamini-Zuma has already prepared speeches on how she plans to defend free education against those who are captured by white monopoly capital. Ramaphosa, on the other hand, will remain reasonable and well-measured when it comes to free education. Attacking it altogether will not work for him. He can only give a perspective and state that we need to do this in a careful and sustained way to preserve the economy.

Dlamini-Zuma's message will be fitting for the demagogue and a few people who are genuinely frustrated with the state of tertiary education.

The game plan with free education does not end with the leadership tussle between Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma, but goes straight to the heart of the ANC's 2019 election strategy. 

For now, Zuma is dangling the free education carrot so as to woo a bigger support base for Dlamini-Zuma's wobbly campaign to win the elective conference.

Come to think of it, Dlamini-Zuma can actually go ahead and publicly start defending free education without Zuma making any announcement. That's politics: you drive the rumour about something you intend to do, you then deny it while your loyalists cash in political points by defending your decision as a hypothetical point because you will still be denying it.

- Ralph Mathekga is a Fellow at the SARChI Chair: African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy at the University of Johannesburg and author of When Zuma Goes. 

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