President Jacob Zuma’s announcement that poor and working-class students would get free tertiary education raises the question of whether DA leader Mmusi Maimane was perhaps onto something when he said last year that Zuma lives on his own planet in a galaxy far, far, away from the people.
Delivering his last political report as party president, at the opening session of the ANC’s elective conference on Saturday, Zuma boldly pushed ahead with his populist and much-criticised plan for free education, which is to come into effect from next year for students in their first year of study at public universities.
In so doing, Zuma bulldozed the recommendations of the Heher Commission, which found that the state has no capacity to provide free tertiary education to all students and recommended that undergraduate and postgraduate students – regardless of family background – should be funded via a cost-sharing model of government guaranteed “Income-Contingency Loans”, obtained from commercial banks.
The Heher Commission report was released by Zuma last month, amid speculation that he was set to announce a free tertiary education plan allegedly devised by Morris Masutha, the apparent ex-boyfriend of his daughter.
Already this is sounding problematic.
Not surprisingly, the plan has drawn fire from various quarters, with the Banking Association of South Africa saying Zuma’s announcement lacks substance and that the plan is deliberately vague on what is needed to implement.
The DA also slammed Zuma for “playing politics with the hopes and futures of millions of young people”.
What is certain is that free higher education – while a noble and necessary goal – will put a massive strain on the fiscus, which already faces a revenue shortfall of R50.8 billion.
Perhaps Planet Zuma is indeed a place in a parallel universe far, far away from the lives of ordinary South Africans.