The script was supposed to be perfect: On the first day of last month’s ANC conference, the president announces that poor students will be granted free higher education.
President Jacob Zuma, the custodian of radical economic transformation, would deliver on one of its key imperatives and establish his credentials as such. The delegates would then lap up this Christmas gift and reward him by voting in his preferred candidate – Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma – as the new president of the ANC.
However, the script was not followed. The conference delegates had already made up their minds about the ANC and the South Africa they wanted, and they rejected Zuma’s anointed candidate by voting for Cyril Ramaphosa.
Then, officials in Treasury, which is supposed to provide the money to ensure Zuma’s populist promise is realised, made it clear they had not been consulted before he made his declaration. Since then, they have been scrambling to find the money.
As late as this week, Treasury’s spokesperson said the department neither knew where the money would come from, nor did they want to discuss the matter.
Then many university vice-chancellors made it clear that government had not consulted them about this drastic move and had therefore been unable to put any systems in place. With days to go before registration opens, they are still in the dark.
As Fort Hare vice-chancellor Professor Sakhela Buhlungu put it, they welcome the idea of free education, however, this depends on the availability of resources. As things stand, there is no clarity on where the money will come from to support universities, which have also not finalised their budgets as they wait for clarity.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) called on qualifying matriculants to flood universities to demand access to higher education. This is, of course, an unreasonable call, but it is meant to call the president’s bluff. Tertiary institutions are on tenterhooks as they anticipate the chaos that could result from the EFF’s call.
Zuma may have thought his declaration would garner him much-needed political points, but, in the end, it was a middle finger to the nation he has treated with such contempt. When he is removed from office, he will sit in his palace in Nkandla and laugh at those who are dealing with the chaos. Perhaps it is befitting that, as the leader of the ANC, he left us with this supposed gift because chaos is what defined his presidency.