The student protests against fee increases that have swept across our university campuses caught many people by surprise, and none more so than the African National Congress (ANC) government. The breeching of the Parliamentary precinct by students on Wednesday seems to have shaken them from their slumber. And subsequent marches to Luthuli House and the Union Buildings have left no doubt about the levels of anger and frustration. But instead of stepping up to address the issue head-on, the ANC government’s response has been a baffling mix of brutality, insincere sympathy and inaction.
If President Jacob Zuma and Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande wanted to show leadership in this matter, then Wednesday afternoon was their opportunity. They chose to do nothing. As Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene presented his medium-term budget policy statement in Parliament, students had reached the steps of the National Assembly and were confronted by lines of public order police.
From inside the House we could hear the stun grenades. Everyone knew what was going on outside. We got text messages, we saw tweets, and still our president sat stony-faced as his finance minister delivered his mid-term budget speech. This speech was another chance for the ANC to show that it took the students seriously, but Nene’s address contained not one single reference to the growing crisis right on our doorstep.
Also sitting inside the House was Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko, listening to the chaos unfolding outside as the public order police met the students with brute force. Policing is a national competency. Nhleko could have – and should have – stepped outside to intervene, but he didn’t. Instead he sat motionless alongside the president and all his colleagues in the ANC benches, pretending this was just another day in Parliament.
Zuma and his ANC government fiddled while Rome burned.
Despite claims to the contrary by Nzimande, the funding shortfall of our universities is indeed a crisis. But this is not a new crisis. Since 1994, the number of students enrolled at our universities has more than doubled. In that time, government funding per student has come down from more than R20,000 to under R17,000 in 2014. Right now, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme can only fund roughly half the people who qualify.
Access to quality education is surely the biggest leveller of the playing field when it comes to opening opportunities for young, disadvantaged South Africans. All possible interventions to revive our economy and create jobs – if the ANC ever get round to this – will be in vain if we don’t produce a new generation of skilled, empowered South Africans to step into these jobs. Eradicating inequality and transforming society doesn’t begin with a job. It begins with a quality education.
Which brings me to the crux of the matter here: the funding of our universities. Across the world, universities rely on more or less the same funding model: a portion comes from government subsidies and a potion comes from student fees. There are other streams of income like fundraising, but these are not only unreliable, they also often come with strings attached. Donors want to sponsor specific buildings, research projects, even sports teams.
So for practical purposes, whatever money doesn’t come from the government must come from fees. If one or both of these drop, then you will either sacrifice access or you will sacrifice quality. We cannot allow this to happen, so the money has to come from somewhere.
The government subsidy to universities as a portion of their overall revenue has been steadily declining over recent years. While there has been some growth in this government transfer, it hasn’t kept up with the increase in student enrollment and inflation, leaving universities to rely more and more on student fees. This can only perpetuate the status quo of inequality by excluding millions of young South Africans from higher education. Remember, the students who have been shutting down campuses and marching to Parliament, Luthuli House and the Union Buildings aren’t only doing so to for themselves. They are also doing this for the millions of South Africans who never had a hope of setting foot on one of these campuses.
Unsurprisingly, Nzimande’s offer of a 6% cap on university fee increases was rejected by the students. They say he must try harder. He says there’s no more money to be found. But he is wrong. There are substantial pockets of money that can be reallocated – it all just comes down to priorities. As the higher education minister, it is his job to prioritise students. When it comes to advocating for budget allocation, he is their voice, and he’s not doing his job. If he was, he would be pointing out what many analysts have said over the past few days: our budget priorities are all wrong.
While we are outraged that Nene failed to mention the higher education funding crisis in his medium-term budget address, we should also be outraged by all the other omissions. As members of Parliament, it is our duty to serve the entire nation, and this includes groups who haven’t, or couldn’t, mobilise in protest against the government. In addition to university funding, Wednesday’s budget also needed to address the child who needs better healthcare, the elderly and grants, school learners and education, and policing and community safety. It is critical that we hear the whole budget so that we can properly engage with the appropriation of public money.
But perhaps what should really anger us is what the minister did mention. Because this gives us a pretty clear idea of where the ANC government’s priorities lie.
Dominating the budget announcement – and dominating government spending – was a R64-billion increase over the next three years to fund a 7.25% increase in the public sector wage bill. Civil servant salaries already account for roughly half our R1-trillion. Given our challenges, this is an astonishing number. A bloated, inefficient government, while good for rewarding loyalists with jobs, is disastrous for service delivery, economic growth and job creation. In the longer term, trimming our enormous government is where we can make the most radical changes to our budget. In the short term, we can save billions by limiting these wage increases to the inflation rate of 6% instead of 7.25%.
While the public sector wage bill might be the biggest line item in Nene’s speech, the budget announcement that best describes a government completely out of touch is the allocation of an additional R70-million to the VIP Protection Services. This unit, with a budget that now stands at over R1.1-billion, provides solely for the protection of the president, deputy president, former presidents, their spouses and certain visiting dignitaries. Higher education got R36-million in Wednesday’s budget. The president’s bodyguards got twice this.
Seeing Zuma and Nzimande fleeing Parliament on Wednesday in their convoys of luxury sedans instead of owning and dealing with the crisis perfectly illustrated the massive chasm that lies between our government and angry young South Africans.
Other budget line items that can immediately be redirected to higher education include the R2-billion gained from the sale of the government’s stake in Vodacom. This money has been earmarked for the Brics Bank, which will do nothing to open opportunities for young people.
Then there is an amount of R720-million that has been set aside to offset the effect of future depreciations in the rand on our foreign missions. We currently have the second-highest number of diplomatic missions in the world – only behind the US – which is unheard of for a country of our size and means. Setting aside hundreds of millions of rands to keep them going as we anticipate further slides in our currency is a massive waste of resources. This too can be directed towards universities.
Nene also announced R67-million for “preparatory work” for the proposed nuclear build. Aside from the fact that the entire R1-trillion build should be abandoned, this line item can certainly be better used for university funding.
In the long term, we can make far bigger savings and adjustments by trimming Zuma’s huge 35-ministry, R1.6-billion Cabinet down to a reasonable size. We can cut the public sector wage bill dramatically by cutting back on salaries to superfluous departments and by linking salaries to performance. And we can save billions by reducing losses to fruitless, wasteful, irregular and unauthorised expenditure as well as corruption.
So when Nzimande says “there is no more money”, he simply means “there is no political will to shift priorities from the narrow interests of those who benefit from patronage and cadre deployment to the broad interests of young South Africans desperate for an education”. Investing in the youth should be our number one priority. Fixing basic education, funding higher education and creating opportunities for young job seekers must trump everything else.
If Zuma and Nzimande aren’t the people who can make this happen, then they must make way for those who can. The students of the #FeesMustFall movement speak on behalf of a much wider and equally frustrated sector of South African society. This is not a wave of discontent, it is a tsunami. Zuma and his government had better act quickly and boldly, or they will discover just how powerful people can be when they have nothing to lose. DM