Despite warnings that a second 0% scenario will collapse tertiary institutions, President Jacob Zuma is insisting on the status quo
President Jacob Zuma has instructed Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande to find the money to accommodate the 0% fee increase for students for next year.
Zuma gave the order to the two ministers, despite Treasury warning that the fiscus could not carry the burden and Nzimande insisting that universities needed an increase of at least 6% in 2017 if they were to avoid “collapse”.
At a meeting called by Zuma last Sunday afternoon at the St George’s Hotel in Irene, Tshwane, he made it clear to Gordhan and Nzimande that he backed the call for zero-fee tertiary education by the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA).
The organisation comprises the ANC Youth League, the Young Communist League and university and school student bodies Sasco and Cosas.
The meeting, held after the party’s recent four-day national executive committee (NEC) gathering in Centurion, was also attended by ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte, PYA leaders and Naledi Pandor in her capacity as chair of the ANC’s subcommittee on education, health, science and technology.
The meeting was confirmed by several independent sources in government and the student movement. Earlier, the NEC – of which Nzimande and Gordhan are members – had resolved to support the students’ demands.
Two senior government officials with close knowledge of the meeting said Zuma told Gordhan that he would have to reprioritise his budget to make provision for additional university funding to accommodate the 0% fee increase for 2017.
This will be the second consecutive year that Zuma summarily overrules Nzimande. He did the same last year, after Nzimande had placed a 6% cap on increases, which marked a significant reduction from the double-digit hikes that some institutions were proposing.
At the time, the announcement took Treasury, the higher education department and university leaders by surprise, and they had to scramble to fund the shortfall.
This year, there have been warnings that a second 0% scenario would devastate the already compromised finances and resources of universities, and “punish” other government programmes.
A government official said that, before last weekend, Nzimande’s department was hoping all parties would accept a 6% increase.
“The president said the finance minister must go back and see where he can get money for the fee freeze. Nzimande was clear that some sort of fee was necessary, or universities were going to collapse,” said the senior official.
“The president insisted that they look for the money and see what they could do.”
Last week, Treasury’s budget office head, Michael Sachs, told the commission of inquiry into higher education funding that the country had no more money to allocate to tertiary institutions.
Money would have to be redirected from other needy departments such as the health department, as well as from the budget set aside for the National Health Insurance scheme.
Sachs added that drastic adjustments had to be made when last year’s no-hike-in-fees education policy was announced.
Zuma’s relationship with Nzimande – once an ardent backer of the president – is seriously strained. City Press has learnt that, when the presidential commission of inquiry into the feasibility of funding higher education was given an extension until May next year to complete its work, Nzimande found out through a media statement issued by the presidency.
“There is no working relationship at all between the minister and the president,” said one senior figure familiar with the dynamics.
Requests for comment sent to the presidency on Friday and yesterday went unanswered.
No one will defy No.1
Insiders in Nzimande’s department said they had been willing to brace themselves for a student revolt. The plan was to explain to students that it was necessary on the back of last year’s fee freeze.
“We were all clear on what should happen. But now we have been catapulted into chaos,” an official said.
Zuma’s stance has emboldened the student leadership, which is tasting victory for the second year running.
“The PYA are now confident because they have the backing of the president,” said another official.
The best compromise: 6%
An internal report from the Council on Higher Education, which City Press has obtained, revealed that the best scenario for the department was to forge ahead with a “compromise proposal” of a 6% increase in fees.
The report, titled Advice to the Minister of Higher Education on Fee Adjustments at Public Universities for 2017, also revealed that even with the 6% hike, university surpluses would decline by R4.1 billion between the 2014/15 and 2016/17 financial years, and recover by only R400 million by 2017/18. But with a fee freeze in place, they would decline by a further R882 million in 2017/18.
A departmental official said it was almost certain that the fee-freeze decision would be announced soon.
“Government will simply have to find the money through reprioritisation. Unfortunately, it means punishing other programmes,” he said.
Young Communist League secretary Mluleki Dlelanga said it was important that a university shutdown similar to the one which occurred last year was averted. “Students must know that their call is being heard at the highest level, so there is no need for a shutdown.”
Pandor could not be contacted for comment as she was on her way to Australia, said her spokesperson, Lunga Ngqengelele.
ANC Youth League president Collen Maine and secretary-general Njabulo Nzuza reneged on promises to speak to City Press this week. Spokesperson Mlondi Mkhize denied any knowledge of last Sunday’s meeting.
At a press conference this week, PYA leaders said students should not shut down the universities, advising them instead to wait for Nzimande to make an announcement. They also called for the private sector to become involved in the realisation of free education.
A Students’ Representative Council (SRC) leader from a Gauteng university said there was a growing sense of panic and anxiety about the fee increases, especially as SRC elections get under way in the next few weeks.
ANC succession dynamics
ANC insiders say Zuma’s icy attitude towards Nzimande, who is also the general secretary of the SA Communist Party (SACP), is directly related to its stance on the ANC’s succession race.
Nzimande and the SACP took a strong stand against the so-called Premier League – comprising Free State Premier Ace Magashule, North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo and Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza – who are backing Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to succeed Zuma as ANC president next year and leader of the country in 2019.
The SACP and Cosatu leaders prefer former unionist Cyril Ramaphosa to step up from his current deputy positions in the party and the state.
This week, the youth league called for an early conference to rid the party of “weak leaders” and elect a new national executive.
This sparked debate within the party and its allies that its main targets were secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and Nzimande.
“They [the Premier League] are mobilising the youth league to cause disruption so that Nzimande can be fired and they can say that universities became chaotic under his leadership. They know Nzimande is not on the same page [as the Premier League] regarding the issue of Dlamini-Zuma. Nzimande is more inclined to believe that the deputy president must succeed the president,” a senior ANC and government insider said.
The insistence by Zuma that Gordhan find money for the fee freeze is also seen as an ongoing ploy to frustrate him.
“Pravin, of course, is a victim in the same way. The two minsters are being dealt with. The problem will be seen to be with the higher education department and Treasury, which are refusing to provide the funds. ‘These two ministers must be dealt with,’ is the narrative,” said the insider.
The SACP’s second deputy general secretary, Solly Mapaila, said discussions with the ANC had been put on hold because of elections and would resume soon.
“We should be able to find time soon to reconnect and finish where we left off to iron out the issues that are creating tensions. But the alliance remains intact.”