The Fees Commission Report will not ease #FMF

[Update]: The presidency released the Fees Commission report on 13 November 2017.

First will come the outrage. Then the protests. Then more protests.

The end to the university crisis is nowhere near at hand, and the release of the report by The Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training (The Fees Commission) will not produce the answer that students so desperately want to hear. There will be no easing of the financial chokehold that is strangling so many of them to death.

The City Press reported on Sunday that the Fees Commission report will not deliver free education. Rather, the Commission has recommended that the government spend a greater proportion of the national budget on the existing fees subsidisation model, and an overhaul of the loan system, which will plug some of the gaps which have made the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) such an inadequate mechanism for the great need among students.

Universities don’t have the luxury of waiting while the president stalls. Several aren’t waiting for the Fees Commission report and have unilaterally announced fees hikes for 2018.

The less-than-ideal report most likely explains the reluctance by President Jacob Zuma to release it. In spite of numerous pleas from various stakeholders, including university administrators and student bodies, the report has so far been withheld from public view.

In the meantime, the situation on campuses has boiled over once again. There’s been a new spate of protests at the University of Cape Town, the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and the University of the Free State – each with a different context but nonetheless fitting into the overall narrative of renewed conflict on campuses – there have also been reports of mobilisation meetings at the University of Witwatersrand.

Two weeks ago, the Pan Africanist Student Movement of Azania marched to the Union Buildings to demand the release of the report. One of the leaders told The Daily Vox that nothing short of free education would suffice. A “revolution” was inevitable if the report didn’t deliver the desired result. UCT students delivered a memorandum to the vice chancellor Max Price which reiterated the demand for no-free increases for 2018, and free education in the longer term. The university was quick to point out that Price too has urged the president to release the report, but that event will not ease campus tensions.

On Saturday, we received fresh news on the report, by way of a statement from the president’s spokesperson Bongani Ngqulunga. He said that the presidency was “finalising the processing of the report which requires, among other things, that the Presidency consult with the relevant ministers to ensure that the government is ready to implement the president’s decision as soon as he releases the report.”

There is important context here. Blade Nzimande was the minister of higher education and training when Zuma received the Fees Commission report on 30 August. In the middle of October, the president announced a sudden Cabinet reshuffle and Nzimande, general secretary of the South African Communist Party which had slowly found its voice to criticise state capture, was ejected from Cabinet. Nzimande gave an illuminating interview with the City Press last week. Apparently he never saw the Fees Commission report, in spite of the fact that he was obviously the most relevant minister in Cabinet, and in spite of the fact that the reshuffle came a full six weeks before he was thrown out of the executive branch. Why was he not shown the report? This decision by the president would appear to contradict Ngqulunga’s statement that the presidency has been working on the report ever since it was received. How is that truthful if Nzimande was kept in the dark?

I’ve reported on politics for long enough to have developed a hard-earned cynicism with regards to Zuma’s actions. I am persuaded by stories that he may have been sitting on the report to allow the correct person to announce a no-fees increase. That would have been a handy piece of political propaganda, no? That person was reportedly supposed to be Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, but the new higher education minister is Hlengiwe Mkhize. Perhaps it would not do for Zuma’s anointed successor to be the one to announce a disappointing Fees Commission report?

Well, students are about to find out anew that their interests are not the president’s highest priority. I don’t mean that the report once publicly delivered will turn out not to be the salve to the issues that have been the kindle for the Fees Must Fall fires. That’s not the issue here. I mean that his decision to delay its release, to offer succour to beleaguered universities which cannot keep delaying the decision about next year’s fees forever, and to anguished students who long for the final victory of free education in South Africa, has always ultimately been about his own priorities.

Considering the billions that have disappeared into the coffers of strategically pointless state-owned enterprises like the South African Airways and down the sewage drain that is corrupt, fruitless, irregular and wasteful expenditure by government departments and municipalities every year, as catalogued by the auditor-general, it seems clear that the money for free education does exist within the current budgetary framework. It is just being wasted while students – the future of this country – starve.

There is an argument to be made perhaps another time that tertiary education has been badly underfunded for more than a decade, thanks to the African National Congress’ policy of developmental austerity, which it has followed ever since the Thabo Mbeki years. In this sense, Fees Must Fall is a crisis that has been in the making ever since Mandela’s developmental policies were abandoned for the neo-liberal friendly economics of Mbeki.

The students are right. They shouldn’t have to pay for the fact that our government has frittered away billions over the years on nonsense while higher education languished right at the bottom of national priorities. This was a predictable crisis which the ANC government nevertheless ignored for years and years until it exploded in their faces. Even now, the indecisiveness continues. So campuses lurch from protest to protest as the government fumbles for an answer. The students are right to be fed up.

Featured image by Yeshiel Panchia