A Zuma time bomb explodes

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on how the ANC govt is playing pass-the-parcel with ‘free education’ costs


One of the time bombs left behind by former president Jacob Zuma blew up deep in the innards of government this week. Its another body blow to the national accounts.

Zuma’s 2017 defeat by Cyril Ramaphosa for the leadership of the African National Congress did not culminate in the surrender of the Radical Economic Transformation faction, but the launch of their guerrilla warfare campaign. As a parting gift, the RET left behind a matching set of cunningly improvised explosive devices: expropriation without compensation (EWC) and free tertiary education.

Ramaphosa’s tactic with EWC was to embrace it with disconcerting ardour. The rationale, claim his supporters, was that by taking the lead on EWC, the president would be able to craft the final version so as to best minimise the fallout in terms of food security, constitutional rights, foreign investment jitters, and Zimbabwe-style farm chaos. That bomb’s still ticking down ominously, so we don’t know if his containment strategy will work.

The second explosive issue, free higher education, is triggered annually by rote and the Ramaphosa administration hasn’t a hope of disarming it. The ANC has done everything possible to meet the demands of the #FeesMustFall and #FreeEducation campaigns — directed by the Economic Freedom Fighters and assisted by RET remnants in the ANC — and billions of rands have been spent on expanding tertiary access to the point that 90% of the population, as determined by a household means test, qualifies.

The universities, donor organisations and big business were bludgeoned by the government into assisting, although most realised that this was likely to be an ever-expanding and bottomless pit. So it has proved to be. Student demands have each year become more extravagant and in 2021, yet again, the money has run out and the fresh-faced revolutionaries are running amok. 

This year the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) needs another R7bn on top of the R42bn it is already spending. In protest, the SA Union of Students this week sought to close down all 26 universities until their demands for zero fee increases and for all historical debt to be written off are met.

Yet again, the government capitulated in a trice. To fill the hole, it’s pinching R500m from the budget for Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges, and another R2.5bn from the grant that goes to universities for salaries and research, as well as R3.3bn from the National Skills Fund (NSF).

As Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande cheerfully admits, “I want to be honest with (sic) that. We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul.” For once, a notoriously slippery minister is telling it as it is. 

As always, the universities are the victims of a mess created by the government. Not only are rampaging students targeting them for the ANC’s failure to provide the “free education” it promised, but the budgetary clawback aggravates an already financially parlous situation.

As far back as 2013, a government committee reported that South Africa’s universities were chronically underfunded for the teaching and research demands placed on them. To cover the shortfall adequately, state grants would have to nearly double. 

But instead of increasing state support as envisaged by the committee’s chair — a certain Cyril Ramaphosa — those already inadequate grants have continued to shrink. In order to solve the problem caused by them being cut in the first place, they are now to be further cut. It’s ANC logic.

Equally damaging is the effect of Nzimande's solution on the more than 4m unemployed youths who lack the skills needed to find work. The NSF’s learnership and workplace-based training programmes, one of their few possible routes out of poverty, are going to be cut back.

Nzimande had nothing to offer but crocodile tears: “I’m personally a firm champion and believer that we must increase support for university students, but at the same time, we must not lose sight of the fact that they constitute less than 5% of the total youth of our country.”

The ANC’s approach is characteristically expedient: relieve immediate political pressure without making the hard decisions necessary for lasting solutions. Its dilemma is that there are so many cracked and flawed pressure hoses in the labouring South African political system that any relief obtained is of shorter and shorter duration.

Tertiary education students are a highly privileged group, ranking in the ANC’s untouchability index on a par with taxi owners and unionised public servants. And like public servants, they could do with a numbers' cull and a benefits' trim.

After all, who would not want to be a cosseted student in a country that has over 50% youth unemployment? All academic fees and are covered; so, too, is accommodation (either in a university residence or comparably priced private residence), transport, meals, personal care and incidental expenses. Every student receives a free laptop. A government that has gogos queueing overnight in the cold and rain for their social grants manages monthly to charge each student’s debit card with the necessary fees.

The entry threshold to the well-paid job of being a student is not high. About a third of matriculants pass at university admission level, while only a Grade 9 pass is required for college admission.

Nor is there any restriction on subject choice at university. In our laissez-faire system, it’s considered as deserving of taxpayer munificence to qualify in a field for which there is little demand as in the high-demand fields of science, technology and engineering.

And as jobs go, the student workload isn’t onerous. Professional students need to pass only 50% of their modules to continue receiving their salaries. 

It’s undeniably important to expand tertiary education access and to do so in such a way that ensures it is not the preserve of the privileged and relatively wealthy. But in a country at South Africa’s stage of development, free higher education is simply not sustainable.

In countries like the United Kingdom and Australia, tertiary education is part-funded with state grants but, increasingly, through direct student fees or a student aid agency with loans. These are repayable after graduation, once the recipient is employed. Vigorous enforcement means significant levels of repayment, thus ensuring the system’s sustainability.

For a while, South Africa followed this disgracefully exploitative colonial model. Except that the NSFAS was, unlike most of its international counterparts, dysfunctional and corrupt. 

In 2017 and 2018 NSFAS rang up R7.5bn in irregular expenditure, including one lucky student who went on a spending spree after it erroneously credited her card with R14m. By the time Zuma, intent on sabotage, decreed the introduction of “free” education the loan model had collapsed and the NSFAS sat with 467,000 graduates owing R20bn and with few of them showing any ubuntu intention of repaying. 

The free education chimaera, like any promise of something for nothing, has vociferous support. The Higher Education Transformation Network, a not-for-profit campaigning for the advancement of black African and women alumni in higher education, this week released a statement in support of the students, reminding us that “free access to higher education is a right not a privilege for the few”. 

“The responsibility to fund higher education is a shared social responsibility shared by government and the business sector”, the HETN declares. “We accordingly call on the business sector to assist the State in funding higher education as it is business that also benefits… In the past decade, the State has invested billions of taxpayer funds in recapitalising the NSFAS as well as funding new university infrastructure… These investments have not been fairly matched by the business sector.”

It’s hard to know what to make of an organisation of university graduates that is seemingly unaware that those “billions of taxpayer funds” spent on higher education came mostly from, um, businesses. And on top of paying their taxes, businesses also voluntarily fund thousands of scholarships and pours hundreds of millions of rands into university coffers through donations, commissioned reports and research.

There is one clue to how seriousy we should take HETN. Its website announces that “all correspondence” with HETN “must be in writing”. There's a lot to be said for free education, if your country can afford it. Much more to be said for a good one, if your country can provide it.

Unfortunately, the former often makes impossible the latter.

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