Zuma’s free education announcement cautiously welcomed by student leaders

On Saturday, the Presidency announced a new higher education policy, which promised free education for TVET students, and a wide-ranging grant system for poor and working class students. Students have been demonstrating for several years under the banner of #FeesMutFall, and various leaders have responded positively to the announcement, saying it is not a holistic victory but a “step in the right direction”.

The announcement was made on Saturday morning months after the Heher commission on higher education submitted its report to President Jacob Zuma.

In the statement, the president stated that considering the level of inequality, the definition of poor and working class students will now refer to “currently enrolled TVET College or University students from South African households with a combined annual income of up to R350 000” by 2018 academic year.”

Fees Must Fall activist and student leader Alex Hotz said students should be cautious.

“What does that actually mean? There have been so many numbers to estimate what the poor is, so is R350 000 the amount? It is obviously a victory if 90% of people will get free education, if that’s the number, then that is an obvious victory for black people in this country,” she said.

The presidency said historical debt will be be dealt with by the minister of higher education and training along with the department of planning, monitoring and evaluation, and the national treasury to determine the amount of funding required.

Student leader Naledi Chirwa from the EFF Student Command said the announcement was a step in the right direction for her as a fallist, but certain aspects needed to be clarified. “The things that still need to be clarified is historical debt because there’s numerous people who fall under those categories who have now graduated, have not gotten their transcripts, who can’t continue with their lives because they’ve got historical debt,” she said.

“It’s something that needs to be clarified by the President. Historical debt is another thing that invigorated Fees Must Fall. It wasn’t just increments; it was also historical debt,” Chirwa said.

The new policy leaves it to the minister of higher education and training to work with the relevant government agencies and other relevant stakeholders. They will address the issue of transformation of the post-school education and training sector, as well as matters related to curriculum alignment.

Chirwa said students still want free decolonised education. “There are many black writers, many black academics but our curriculum is engulfed, is entrenched in whiteness and white thought. When we say decolonising, we mean it must be free from capitalist objectives,” she said.

The statement said government will increase subsidies to universities from 0.68% to 1% of the GDP over the next five years.

Hotz questioned whether this is the way it would be implemented. “Does it leave white monopoly capital intact? The private sector must come to the party, they have to be taxed for free education – that’s my view. What does it mean for insuring more black people get into university because all it speaks to is students currently in university,” she said.

Luvo Jaza, a student leader from Walter Sisulu University said they are no longer interested in promises but are interested in implementation. “Remember, there has been a lot that we were promised before by the Freedom Charter, by the Constitution after 1994 and many of those things have not come,” he said.

He said if the correct implementation did not happen, the Fees Must Fall movement would retaliate.

Additional reporting by Nolwandle Zondi and Mohammed Jameel Abdulla

Featured image by Thomas Kolathu