The new year has hardly begun, but our first seismic shock is about to hit us. Last year - in fact, three weeks ago - to the chagrin of university vice-chancellors, President Jacob Zuma opened the 54th ANC conference and dropped a bombshell - university fees would be free for the poor.
It wasn’t just the VCs who were stunned; the Treasury appeared fairly shell-shocked, even though the finance minister was placed fairly squarely in the room by the education minister.
Who can blame them? The announcement wasn’t so much the elephant in a very large room crammed full of elephants, but rather a great, steaming mass of elephantine incontinence.
The president knew he was stepping down from the ANC presidency that weekend. What he didn’t know was who would be replacing him. It was a serious question because he faces a tsunami of legal issues, most of which have the potential to either reduce him to penury or let him spend his retirement in a penitentiary - or both.
The battle for the presidency of the ANC was perhaps its most contested ever, with Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, his former wife and mother of some of his children, battling it out with his deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa. Ramaphosa won that battle, but the jury is still out on where the power lies - something that will become much clearer next week he prepares to deliver his inaugural January 8 statement (on January 13) as ANC president in East London.
And therein lies the genius of the tactic: with all the moves to unseat Zuma - and that tsunami is rapidly gaining momentum - comes a move from the side that could topple the entire house of cards.
This week, the Department of Higher Education and Training moved quickly to try to put the genie back in the bottle, promising that Zuma’s announcement was being taken very seriously - but due to common sense, budgets and economic realities, it would only be phased in over five years.
However, it will not be easy to change the expectation that was created on December 16 last year and gleefully grabbed by the Economic Freedom Fighters who promptly called on matriculants who now qualify to go to varsity just to pitch up at the gates and demand to be registered.
It’s a call that chills the blood of university administrators the length and breadth of the country. It was only six years ago that the University of Johannesburg endured the tragedy of Gloria Sekwena, a 47-year-old nurse and mother crushed in the stampede of aspirant students as she tried to help her son register. Her death was the catalyst for the entire system of walk-in late registrations to be changed and literally taken online.
The hunger for places at South Africa’s universities is absolutely mind-blowing. Wits announced on Thursday that it would not be reopening its registration process for this year because it’s already trying to deal with 56901 applications and has place for only 5664 first year students.
It’s much the same story everywhere else, demand outstripping supply by a factor of almost 10 to one. Even in Kimberley, the comparatively brand-new Sol Plaatje University, with its pared-down faculties, has room for 700 first years, but has already received 2300 applications.
Higher education is the key to the better life for all. We all know that - viscerally. After the two iterations of #FeesMustFall, we also know how unequal, almost impossible, access to education is in this country.
But just as the public support for the Fallists waned dramatically in 2016 when the protests turned vicious and internecine, with sorely needed resources being vandalised and even destroyed by anarchists who weren’t even registered students, so, too, the EFF’s call to ignore the department’s Central Applications Clearing House, and effectively storm the gates, is not just exceptionally dangerous, it’s downright opportunistic.
Nobody should be looking for political headway by simply playing on the fears, the hopes and the deferred dreams of the desperate, but then the EFF didn’t cast the first stone.
As the people’s puppet, Chester Missing (Conrad Koch), wryly noted on Thursday while Mkhize was trying desperately to put out fires: “Jacob Zuma’s minister of education is accusing Julius (Malema) of trying to score cheap political points re free education. It’s like a guy at an AA meeting judging another dude at an AA meeting for being an alcoholic.”
The truly awful genius, though, is that it isn’t Zuma’s mess to clear up any more - it’s Ramaphosa’s. And maybe that was the strategy all along.
Stopping a student revolution in the streets will take anyone’s eye off the ball, especially if that game involves having to put a sitting president in the dock.