It has taken a relatively small band of petulant students to highlight the fragility of President Jacob Zuma’s African National Congress government. A protest that should have been contained and defused instead has been allowed to smoulder and grow.
The wannabe revolutionaries of the Economic Freedom Front and radical activist organisations have been quick to heap fuel on the fire and the flames spread to the very gates of Parliament. It is not clear at this stage whether the fire will peter out or burn more fiercely, but one thing is for certain — the appointment of yet another government “task team” to investigate and report back is a futile attempt at buying time.
In any case, a government committee, under the chairmanship of Cyril Ramaphosa, has already looked into the crisis of higher education and reported two years ago. Its findings would not have been startling to any administrator at any South African university.
Universities were found to be chronically underfunded for the teaching and research demands placed on them. To cover the shortfall adequately, state grants would have to almost double.
Meanwhile the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), which is supposed to address the needs of poor students, was deemed hopelessly inadequate and dysfunctional.
The paralysing reality that Zuma’s government is having to face up to after six years of political drift is that there are limits to the fiscal largesse available for distribution to special interest groups. To mangle an old political saw, one can buy all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but one can’t buy all of the people all of the time.
It’s a reality that not only the government, but the students and their supporters, will have to come to terms with. Instead of trying to close down Parliament — as was the avowed intention of some students — they might have benefited from instead listening to the financial constraints being spelt out inside that venue by Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene.
Hefty public sector wage increases coupled with lower tax revenue because of weak economic growth means that there is about R100 billion less to spend over the next three years. This means that no new allocations can be made.
Or rather, new allocations can only be made by slashing other expenditure, since debt servicing is already, after wages, the second biggest budgetary item and amounts to almost 11% of the budget, at R128 billion a year. So what do we slash? Health? Basic education? Social grants? The military?
Against this backdrop, the demand for universal free higher education is ludicrous. That it is being made, apparently in all seriousness, shows how desperately SA public life lacks the nuanced, informed political discourse with which a functioning, healthy higher education system would bless us. There comes a time in every young person’s life where they need to be gently disabused of the existence of Father Christmas.
Actually, disadvantaged students, funded through the NSFAS, effectively already get a free education since they are excused much of their loan if they perform academically. However, the commitment of these young graduates to the next generation of poor students can be gauged by the fact that the state only recovers 3% of the money that is supposed to be paid back.
In any case, the real problem in higher education is not higher education. It is SA’s broken basic education system.
Much academic time and effort at tertiary institutions is spent on trying to remedy the failure of SA’s schools to deliver basic reading and writing competency. University budgets are further stretched by academically ill-equipped students often taking five years to complete three-year undergraduate degrees.
One almost feels sorry for the university executives who are the meat in this ham-fisted sandwich served up by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande. Almost.
Until now, vice-chancellors have obliged in the necessary massification of higher education, while at the same time meekly accepting swingeing cuts in state expenditure. This was a dream scenario for the ANC: We hold the party and you guys pay for it by raiding reserves and knocking at corporate doors, hat in hand.
It is only since the protests started that suddenly the university administrations have found the courage to challenge publicly an iniquitous funding model. It seems that nothing better focuses the mind like being at the pointy end of a belligerent student’s placard.
Now it remains for Zuma and his cabinet to experience the same epiphany. Their wriggle room has just become a lot less.
Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye