President Jacob Zuma’s last big bang, his announcement on free tertiary education, may spell serious trouble for the next ANC president and be highly divisive for the country, according to analysts.
Zuma on Saturday announced government would subsidise free higher education for poor and working-class students.
In the statement, he said the definition of poor and working class students would now refer to currently enrolled TVET Colleges or university students from South African households with a combined annual income of up to R350 000 by the 2018 academic year.
This was despite the Heher commission on free higher education concluding that free education was not feasible.
Political analyst Ralph Mathekga said Zuma’s attempt at leaving a good legacy for himself could end up dividing the country.
“We are going through a serious education crisis and, going into 2019, free education might help the ANC with the fallout they are currently facing with progressive forces and the students. “When the dust settles from this ANC conference, the new ANC president is going to be in trouble in the lead up to 2019.”
The historically close relationship between South Africa’s student community and the ANC, which became strained in the wake of the Fees Must Fall movement, among other issues, was also hanging in the balance, and this would be one of the issues that could make or break that support base, Mathekga said.
“We have seen other parties, like the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters), seeming to fill that gap in many institutions of higher learning. Rejecting this proposal outright could further widen that gap. This idea is going to have to be reformulated, but I don’t think it will be fully rejected. The students are going to push for this and the nation has to find a way to deal with this, even if it means reformulating government subsidies and finding creative ways to find the money for this.”
But economist Sean Muller said the trouble with Zuma’s announcement was with the definition of poor students and the financial implications thereof.
“The big problem with the president’s proposal is that it prioritises expanding the definition of which students qualify, rather than ensuring that the neediest students in the system are fully supported. So it extends full funding to new students in 2018 who come from households earning up to R350 000, even though existing students in the system from poorer households will not get that level of support.
Furthermore, there are real doubts as to whether the R350 000 threshold will be affordable to government – without undesirable cuts to other expenditure areas – once it covers most students in the system.” Meanwhile, the Democratic Alliance described Zuma’s move towards free education as “reckless politicking”.
In a statement yesterday, the party said the proposal was completely uncosted and therefore must be seen as “playing politics with the hopes and futures of millions of young people”.
National Treasury said it was in the process of reviewing proposals on higher education and would announce any amendments to existing spending and tax proposals in the 2018 budget announcement.