Blade Nzimande: A reply to Eusebius McKaiser

Alex Mashilo says The Star columnist's article was, unfortunately, an opportunist, liberal attack on the Minister

Red Alert:

Eusebius McKaizer’s isolation and attack on Comrade Blade Nzimande revealed his shocking ignorance about higher education, technical and vocational training

The ongoing student struggle that started at the University of the Witwatersrand and spread across the country to about 17 universities is a legitimate struggle.

This is a struggle, in my view, against the class discrimination facing the children of the poor and the working class who make the majority of the people in our country and cannot afford the high cost of access to university and college education. This is the struggle to increase the pace, which we have started as the African National Congress (ANC) led alliance, to introduce free quality higher education, technical and vocational training. The Secretariat of the alliance partners, the ANC, South African Communist Party (SACP), Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) met yesterday with the Progressive Youth Alliance formations and expressed support to the legitimate content of this struggle.

However, there are other forces and elements outside there who try and use every opportunity to drive the wedge of divisions, isolate ANC leaders and attack them individually. Let us look at Eusebius McKaiser who has become one of them. When? One cannot tell.

His column “Why is Blade absent from class” published by The Star newspaper on 19 October 2015 boils down into one line: isolate and blame the Minister of Higher Education and Training (DHET) Dr Blade Nzimande for internal “crises” in universities. This elevation of the individual, who is isolated, and its total disregard of both the historical processes and underlying structural forces that drive social change is a manifestation of the worst form of liberalism.

McKaiser’s approach is similar to that of the DA. But the DA is better in the sense that it is openly pursuing opposition politics to achieve a counter-revolution against the ANC and is widely known to be less interested in any truth that can jeopardise its prospects to become the government.

McKaiser writes for us under the pretext of an objective analysis that is independent and holistic. A person in his position should be familiar with the laws governing the subject matter and the facts he writes about for our attention. Unfortunately, the content of his column reveals a person who is not familiar with both those laws and the facts of the subject matter. The main thing in MaKaiser’s content which lacks substance and is by and large ignorant about the laws and facts relating to higher education, technical and vocational training in South Africa, is, unfortunately, an opportunist, liberal attack on Minister Nzimande.

McKaiser should give us facts and must not be biased. For he is unlike a factionalised youth leader who is simply grandstanding by isolating Comrade Blade individually from the rest of the ANC and the government without noticing that this is an attack on both the ANC and the ANC-led government in pursuit of the private interests of some handlers with the net effect of disrupting the unity and cohesion of the ANC and its ultimate destruction. Followed to its logical conclusion, this scapegoating of Minister Nzimande is no different from blaming President Jacob Zuma for the systemic economic crises facing the working class and the poor and must be dismissed with the contempt it deserves.

What are the underlying issues?

Since 2009 the ANC-led government created a dedicated focus on higher education and training when it separated the former department of education into two, the basic education department and the DHET – to which Dr Nzimande was appointed the first Minister. If McKaiser and his like were honest, they would recognise the tremendous efforts undertaken by government to expand access to universities and colleges since then, compared to any time in the past.

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) was tripled, from about R3 billion to the region of R9 billion by 2015. The NSFAS was further extended to college students who were previously completely excluded from it and its predecessor, the Tertiary Education Fund of South Africa, and were never provided with any form of alternative funding whatsoever.

All of this progress was made possible, in addition to allocations from the national treasury, thanks to continuous exploration and innovation by the DHET of new sources of funding and the restructuring of government departments which saw the National Skills Fund and Sector Education and Training Authorities moved to the DHET. 

Apart from the NSFAS, universities receive a subsidy in the region of R21 billion by 2015. Increased attention on transformation saw universities, with greater attention on upgrading historically disadvantaged institutions, further receiving special infrastructure grants.

These are welcome advances, notwithstanding and therefore being mindful to the fact that all of these resources combined are not sufficient and, in addition, have been outpaced by the growing demand for assistance. It is disingenuous for McKaiser and his like to blame the DHET for the problem of insufficient resources to meet the demand for student funding and increase the subsidy to universities and colleges.

For the DHET to meet the demand, its allocation from the national treasury must be increased substantially. This is an essential component of the crux of the matter, and is an inevitable path in our country’s strategic direction to progressively introduce free quality higher, technical and vocational training which require hundreds of billions of rands per annum. Without placing our country’s democratic transformation on to a second, more radical phase to reduce the persisting high levels of inequality, unemployment and poverty; to change the colonial structure of our economy; to alter and expand the tax base, including through increased graduated tax especially on the capitalist class, this strategic objective will not be possible.

But the DHET is not responsible for fiscal policy and does not make allocation of revenue to itself. This is the policy realm of the national treasury, which in turn is subject to the limits of the tax base and primarily the economy as the basic source from which state revenue is generated.

Karl Marx reminds us in ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ that: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”.

What we are facing, manifesting itself in universities through a contradiction between the rising levels of fees and upfront fee payments on the one hand and student protest as a response to growing unaffordability on the other hand is an outcropping of deeper economic and historical problems that are far beyond the single mandate of the DHET and the role of a single individual.

This is why it is also populist for a youth leader who claims to support the ANC to isolate and simplistically blame one person, Minister Nzimande, for what is a reflection of deep-rooted and historical economic system problems that have been handed over to our democratic transition by centuries- and decades-old colonial oppression and apartheid based on racist and sexist capitalist exploitation.

According to the South African law as it stands right now, the HET Minister is prevented from making administrative, governance and curriculum decisions in universities. This as a result of the regime of institutional autonomy and academic freedom that has been conferred to higher and further learning institutions by the South African law as it stands at present.

The McKaiser’s grandstanding, and that of his like against Minister Nzimande amounts to calling on the Minister to act illegally and unlawfully and make decisions which he is prohibited, by law, to make and which are reserved to councils, managements and senates in universities.

Having developed a clear understanding of what this regime implied to democratic transformation, progressive students post-1994 fought against it. I was one of them. I also served as a student leader. We lost the battle in 1997-1998 with the promulgation of the Higher Education Act and White Paper 3 and the Further Education and Training Act.

The current problems in universities and colleges remind us of the strategic correctness of our student politics. This reinstates the relevance of our call for the amendment of the above-mentioned legislative framework. Institutional autonomy and academic freedom must be redefined in a way that neither of the two can be used as the centre of resistance against national education and training transformation, to commit financial and academic exclusion, and handover curriculum in the monopoly of a few individuals at the exclusion of society as a whole.

Alex Mohubetswane Mashilo is SACP Spokesperson and writes in his personal capacity as a full-time professional revolutionary. The edited version of this piece was given to The Star with a request to publish in print in line with the principle of ensuring a balance and covering a diversity of perspective to avoid one-sidedness. The writer is looking forward to this publication and hopes it will happen.

This article first appeared in the SACP’s online journal Umsebenzi Online.