“Zuma’s free education plan impossible to implement” – analysts

On Saturday the presidency announced its resolutions on the funding of the higher education and training sector. It called for what is essentially a version of free education for large number of students across the sector. The sudden announcement at the ANC national conference at Nasrec has come as a shock to many and left public opinion polarised, with many unanswered questions left hanging in the air. The Daily Vox spoke to four political analysts who weighed in on some of the common questions that have come out of Zuma’s announcement.

How is this happening? Isn’t free education impossible?

Angelo Fick, the current affairs analyst on eNCA, said what was interesting about the announcement was how up until this point, all indications from government was that free education was impossible. Both the mid-term budget speech and the Heher Commission of Inquiry into the Feasibility of Free Education recommended that free education was not attainable due to the financial strain the economy was in.

“So this particular announcement by the president was in essence a rejection of the Heher Commission’s most primary recommendations. What we’re seeing here is the president choosing, as he has every right to do, to ignore a presidential commission of inquiry’s recommendations and coming up with new recommendations,” said Fick.

University of Cape Town professor Richard Calland and University of Johannesburg professor Steven Friedman did not believe the country was in the financial position to afford free education and that the minister of finance Malusi Gigaba looked entirely shocked by the president’s announcement, indicating that he had not properly been consulted.

Speaking to journalists at the sidelines of the ANC national conference, Gigaba was unable to answer any questions on the funding of free education. “We will provide the details in the budget in February 2018, we can’t provide any details at the present moment,” he said.

“The minister of finance was pointing out that the country faces a very difficult period of fiscal tightness in which the government will have to make difficult choices, and yet there was the president somewhere else nearby, telling the world that unilaterally he was announcing free education for virtually all,” said Calland.

Friedman argued that the likelihood of the president’s announcement being implemented into policy was implausible at best.

“If you looked at the medium-term budget statement, they don’t have the money for what he wants. They don’t have the political support for it. Announcements of this sort generally have to go through all sorts of processes, and given what appeared in the medium-term budget statement, this is not a time which government is really in a position to roll-out large amounts of expenditure,” said Friedman.

What motivated the timing of the announcement? Can we really trust that Zuma will implement free education?

Fick found it interesting that the President’s announcement was essentially in line with what students during #FeesMustFall had been protesting for since 2015. He said that this, along with the timing of the announcement, raised a question of how to interpret the president’s actions.

“Is this a farewell gift to the young people of South Africa, who are increasingly in the majority and will be the majority that will be appealed to by the party come the 2019 elections? Or is there something more complicated going on where he’s handing something over to his successor, who will then have to explain a presidential decree was not successfully implemented?” asked Fick.

Friedman believes it to be a cheap, but ineffective, populist ploy to garner votes for the Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (NDZ) faction of the ANC.

“I find it puzzling because whatever the president’s merits or demerits, he does have a feel for the way the ANC works, and I’m puzzled that he thinks announcing this on the morning of the conference is really going to achieve terribly much on how the ANC is going to determine leadership,” said Friedman.

Calland said the President’s play was hard to understand and found it confusing to believe ANC at this conference would be anything other than shocked by this announcement, or see it as anything but a desperate act to win votes for NDZ. He believed another possible reading was to enhance the image of Zuma’s legacy, and thus give substance to NDZ’s commitment to radical economic transformation.

Fick was not convinced that the timing of the announcement would have any kind of substantial impact on voting behaviour at the #ANC54 national conference.

Did Zuma unilaterally decide on such a policy by himself? Can he do that?

While the presidential statement indicates that thepPresidency had consulted the relevant departments and the inter-ministerial committee on higher education and training, analysts and the public were left with the impression that the announcement caught many within the ANC unawares.

University of Pretoria professor Tinyiko Maluleke told the Daily Vox that the fact that so many within the ANC, particularly cabinet ministers, seemed caught unaware of the announcement was deeply troubling as it indicated that a matter of national importance was not discussed in a fully consultative manner with stakeholders.

“ Ideally such an announcement should have been made with the president flanked by key actors in the sector as well as the key ministries but this does not seem to have been the case,” said Maluleke.


Friedman said: “There are no legal implications to the president making decision by himself. Presidents can say whatever they like, things only become binding when they are enacted in law. They become binding when they appear in budgets. They don’t become binding when the president releases a press release,” said Friedman.

Legally it is only the minister of higher education and training Hlengiwe Mkhize who has the authority to implement and change funding policies for higher education.

According to chapter 5 of the Higher Education Act, the minister of higher education “after consulting the Council of Higher Eduation (CHE) and with the concurrence of the Minister of Finance” is the one to determine the policy on the funding of public higher education. Such a policy “must include appropriate measures for the redress of past inequalities, and publish such policy by notice in the Gazette”.

At this point it remains unclear as to whether the president consulted with the relevant ministers before the announcement, but Fick believed that Mkhize and Gigaba were likely to co operate with the Presidency as they served under him in his cabinet.

So what’s the next step? Should we reject his thing or celebrate?

Friedman believed that it was implausible at best that the president’s announcement would end up as policy. He said the likelihood is that some version or adjustments to funding to free education would likely be announced in the coming months, but they would not be perfectly in line with the President’s announcement, which he maintained was effectively an opinion.

Calland advised caution and healthy skepticism at the process by which the President’s plan was to take place.

Fick said that there were real logistical issues about implementing the President’s plan.

“Students should and do have concerns about how a plan or policy initiative they suggested two years ago has now been announced as an initiative that must be implemented in only five weeks from now,” said Fick.

Featured image by Mohammed Jameel Abdulla