Cape Town - It is a given that providing free tertiary education means something else will have to be given up, former finance minister Trevor Manuel said on Friday.
"For instance, last year the money for no fee increases came from foundation education. How can you have bright university students if there was not good foundation education?" he asked at a business breakfast hosted by the Ubuntu Foundation, MMI Holdings and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in Cape Town on Friday.
"One of the worst things that happened in SA was denying education to black people and the shadow of Hendrik Verwoerd lives on, because we do not push our boundaries."
He said research shows about 60% of pupils have not learnt to read meaningfully in any language by the end of Grade 3, and 75% of teachers do not have content knowledge beyond Grade 7 maths.
"My approach is that children of more affluent parents must pay university fees. Another question for me is why university education should be seen as superior to technical education. Why do we indulge ourselves in this way? University education surely cannot be superior to technical education," he said.
"I will sooner be a tool maker than a burger flipper with (a) BA (degree) in psychology," said Manuel.
He said it was already hard trying to reduce the country's deficit when he was minister of finance.
"And I know Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan is trying to reduce the deficit too. If the money is not there, it is not there. If you borrow, you borrow at much higher cost if you've had a sovereign downgrade. Then you cannot call a comrade and say let's bargain. This is not wage-bargaining. It is about macroeconomics," said Manuel.
In his view, the real questions to ask regarding university fees and education get lost because no space is left for different views.
"It seems to rather be the case of 'it is my way or death' - and you cannot build on that way," said Manuel.
He was shocked at students' physical assault on Max Price, vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Cape Town, as well as verbal abuse hurled at vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand Adam Habib when he attended a peace gathering in a church.
"I am clear about these things. I think I know where I come from. You cannot build support for your cause if you do not have balance and recognition," said Manuel.
"We all tried to look like Che Guevara in our youth. We found inspiration in his view that true revolution is always guided by a great feeling of love – love for yourself, love for the cause and for a people."
He said that is where the context of ubuntu should come in.
"If it is only 'ek' (me) that matters, you do not have a society," he said.
During question time, Manuel was asked for his view on comparisons between South Africa and Zimbabwe, "where the economy slipped away while people were going about their business as usual".
Manuel said one must understand the trajectory of what happened in Zimbabwe.
"The first ten years Zimbabwe did amazingly well and invested a lot in education and skills, for example. But it was all done on borrowed money. From 1991, when the World Bank started calling in payments, there was no money to pay," he said.
"If you try to grow yourself with borrowed money, you will (get) into trouble."
Manuel praised the work done by the Ubuntu Foundation as an example of what can be done in South Africa.Read Fin24's top stories trending on Twitter: Fin24’s top stories