Threats, money and 'lies' – the ongoing story of free education ahead of 2018 registrations

2018-01-04 20:32
The University of Cape Town's Jameson Hall. (James de Villiers/News24)

The University of Cape Town's Jameson Hall. (James de Villiers/News24)

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Cape Town – Weeks after President Jacob Zuma's free higher education announcement, the EFF Students Command promised a "fight" if walk-in registrations at universities weren't accepted, a former treasury official was accused of lying over how much fee-free education would cost, and universities expressed concern that they weren't properly consulted.

This was as confusion remained over how South Africa would fund the education, textbooks and accommodation of thousands of lower and working class first years heading to universities in upcoming weeks.

On Thursday morning, EFF Students Command president Peter Keetse threatened that, if universities did not allow walk-in registrations to occur, they would prevent anyone from accessing campuses.

He said they would be "left with no choice" if they were "pushed".

"When we decide to fight, we fight," he said. 

Read more here: If we need to fight, we will: EFFSC on varsity registration

State Security Minister Bongani Bongo announced on Thursday that the State Security Agency (SSA) was working on a plan with all relevant student organisations, to ensure that registration wasn't disrupted.

At the same government briefing, Higher Education Minister Hlengiwe Mkhize said the fee-free decision would be phased in over five years.

The ministers were asked why Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba, who was part of the inter-ministerial committee (IMC) on higher education, was not present at the briefing. 

They said he apologised for not being able to attend.

Mkhize said there was a due process, in which Gigaba and his team were involved. 

"The minister of finance helped us to make a breakthrough," said Mkhize. 

After Zuma's announcement on December 16, Gigaba told journalists he could not provide details at that moment, but that it would be in the budget.

Meanwhile, the alleged mastermind behind Zuma's decision for free education, Mukhove Morris Masutha, has also accused the former National Treasury deputy director-general of the budget office, Michael Sachs, of lying that free higher education would cost R40bn. 

This is what has happened with the free education debate since December:

Saturday: December 16, 2017

In a shocking move, hours before the start of the ruling ANC's elective congress, Zuma announced that students from poor and working-class families would receive government grants and not loans. 

This will affect students from families that have a joint family income less than R350 000 per annum. 

"Government will now introduce fully subsidised free higher education and training for poor and working-class South African undergraduate students, starting in 2018 with students in their first year of study at our public universities," Zuma said in a statement at the time. 

Zuma's announcement was at odds with the Heher Commission into the Feasibility of Fee-Free Higher Education and Training, which found that South Africa currently does not have the capacity for free tertiary education to all students.

Political analysts saw the move as a way for Zuma to appease congress goers, where his ex-wife and widely-believed preferred candidate Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was contesting the ANC presidential elections. Cyril Ramaphosa was later elected ANC leader at that conference. 

While the National Treasury 'noted' Zuma's announcement in a three-sentence statement, Gigaba said South Africans have to wait until February for details how Zuma's plan will be funded – a month after university registrations begin. 

Saturday: December 30, 2017

EFF leader Julius Malema was labelled "reckless" after calling on former matriculants, who had passed in previous years, but who couldn't afford university fees, to report to academic institutions despite not registering in advance. 

In his end-of-year statement, Malema said the EFF will ensure that all academically deserving students are admitted freely in SA universities and FET colleges. 

"We call upon all those who passed matric extremely well in the past and found themselves as petrol attendants, retail or security workers because they could not afford university fees, to report to the academic institution of their choice next year," Malema said.

Tuesday: January 2, 2018

As most South Africans returned to work after New Year's Day, Universities South Africa (USAf) urged that free higher education should not be used as a political football. 

CEO Ahmed Bawa said the country's 26 public universities would ideally have wanted a year to roll out the new system.

"Instead, we have two to three weeks," Bawa said in a statement. 

He said Malema's call for "walk-in registrations" may potentially cause injury to students and their families. 

"We recall with deep anxiety the event at the University of Johannesburg in January 2012, which resulted in the tragic death of a parent," Bawa said. 

"We, therefore, implore all political parties and student leaders to adopt a responsible approach to this new development in the public higher education sector, and to work in concert with the universities in addressing the challenges that may engulf the start of the new academic year in 2018."

Minister of Higher Education and Training Hlengiwe Mkhize seemed taken aback by Bawa's statement. 

"Trying to figure out what Prof Ahmed Bawa is reported to have said: that the president of the Republic, Pres JG Zuma, was not supposed to announce improved support for the poor and working-class families before his approval. Vice-Chancellors were briefed," Mkhize tweeted. 

"It is in line with an inclusive agenda to ensure that the poor are not excluded and discriminated against on financial grounds," a second tweet read.

Meanwhile, the Economic Freedom Fighters reiterated its call for financially needy, academically deserving students to report to colleges and universities during registration.

It said university managers should not use bureaucratic impediments as an excuse for "walk-in registrations". 

"The country must be firm with university managers, that they must not close the doors of learning now, using useless bureaucratic impediments when funding, which has been the greatest historic impediment, has been removed," the EFF said in a statement. 

Wednesday: January 3, 2018 

As anxiety grew over the implementation of Zuma's free tertiary education announcement, vice-chancellors called Mkhize out for her comments, saying they were not consulted. 

In a Facebook post, University of Fort Hare’s vice-chancellor Sakhela Buhlungu said: "Vice-chancellors were never consulted about the Heher Commission report and the president's free education statement issued on 16 December 2017.

"Anything to the contrary is inaccurate," he said. 

While some universities were invited to make submissions to the Heher Commission, Buhlungu said, once the final report was given to Zuma, it was up to him to "decide on what he wanted to do with it".

Stellenbosch University rector Wim de Villiers echoed Buhlungu’s concerns and said there was "insufficient, to no, consultation."

De Villiers said the practicalities of Zuma's announcement still needed to be ironed out. 

Registrars are trying to address the issues, but it remains unclear when the funding will actually be paid to universities, De Villiers said. 

Meanwhile, Masutha, joined the social media conversation Buhlungu started and called Buhlungu’s comments "just grandstanding".

Masutha said that the "road map" was sent to them by the Department of Higher Education.

"I am really struggling to see where the crisis is," Masutha added. 

News24 previously reported that Masutha, who had dated Zuma’s daughter and was a prominent leader in the Fees Must Fall campaign, was listed as an employee of the State Security Agency (SSA) during his time as a student activist at Wits University.

In an interview with eNCA on Wednesday, Masutha denied being the mastermind behind Zuma's free education plan. 

During the interview, he described himself as "but a mere researcher" and a "mere body of opinion" who had, among many others, contributed to the Heher Commission.

Masutha furthermore described the Heher Commission as "not experts, they are just a body of opinion".

He claimed that it would only cost R12.5bn to provide funding for the group designated as qualifying for free higher education by Zuma.

eNCA interviewer Joanne Joseph told him that the cost of R40bn had, in fact, been calculated by the National Treasury. 

"Michael Sachs was the man who put forward the figure of R40bn," she said.

"Then he lied to you," Masutha immediately replied, adding that Sachs "needs to relook at his calculator".

Sachs declined to comment to News24. 

He resigned from his position in November, after nearly a decade of service in the Treasury.

At the time, Fin24 reported that his move was motivated by interference by the Presidency’s steamrolling of the free higher education.

The City Press newspaper quoted a communiqué from Sachs sent to both Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba and to Treasury director-general Dondo Mogajane in which Sachs apparently wrote: "I am determined to terminate my employment at National Treasury before the end of the year as I cannot, in good conscience, lead the process of preparing the 2018 budget in the current circumstances."

On the same day, The EFF Students Command promised to assist students who defied university rules and conducted walk-ins to register for 2018.

"Fighters will marshal students to different registration centres to avoid stampedes and long queues," spokesperson Magaliso Sambo said in a Facebook post.

Thursday: January 4, 2018 

In a whirlwind of a day, the EFF Students Command promised to "take to the streets" for free education and Bongo said "a plan" is being devised to avoid disruptions to registrations. Universities reiterated that it will not be accepting "walk-in" registrations.

At a media briefing in central Johannesburg, Keetse threatened that if universities did not allow walk-in registrations to occur, the Students Command would prevent anyone from accessing campuses.

"We don’t intend to cause anarchy, [but] when we decide to fight - we fight," Keetse said. 

While the EFF Students Command spoke to media in Johannesburg, Bongo told journalists at a government briefing that the SSA was working on a plan with all relevant student organisations to ensure that registrations were not disrupted.

"The plan that we have, we're not giving any detail," Bongo said. 

"Issues of higher education are issues of state security at the same time."

At the same briefing, Communications Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane and Mkhize were unable to provide details on how free education would be funded.

On Thursday morning, the University of Witwatersrand (Wits), Stellenbosch University (SU) and the University of Johannesburg (UJ) reiterated statements by Universities South Africa that it would accept no "walk-in registration" for the 2018 academic year.

Registrations at Wits and UJ are set to start on January 8 when first years receive their acceptance letters, while registrations at SU and the University of Pretoria have already started.

Read more here: No walk-in registrations will be accepted – Wits, UJ and Stellenbosch warn

Read more on:    da  |  anc  |  eff  |  education

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