Outgoing ANC president Jacob Zuma speaking at the 54th national conference held at the Nasrec Expo Centre on Saturday. Picture:Simphiwe Mbokazi/ANA
Johannesburg - President Jacob Zuma’s announcement on Saturday that “poor and working-class” students would get free tertiary education was a decision that the ANC took, not Zuma.

The cost will be R12.4bn for next year alone.

The announcement was quickly condemned by the opposition DA as “reckless politicking”, but ANC national spokesperson Zizi Kodwa said the president was not “crazy” when he announced free education.

“Free education within the ANC is no longer a debate. We said that our government must implement free-fee (higher) education next year,” Kodwa said, speaking to Independent Media on Saturday on the sidelines of the party’s 54th national conference. Free education, he said, was enshrined in the Freedom Charter and reiterated as ANC policy as recently as 1994 when the party became the government.

Belinda Bozzoli, the DA’s spokesperson on higher education and training, had said the Zuma’s announcement was not “financially feasible”.

Read more: Poor, working class students to get free higher education, says Zuma

In announcing the plan, Zuma went against the Heher Commission’s recommendations for government-guaranteed loans from the banks. The commission had said free education was not feasible because the state didn’t have the money.

Independent Media has reliably learnt that Zuma had wanted wholesale free education for all higher education students and the inter-ministerial committee had to persuade him that this would not be feasible.

“The president in person has always had a view that we should not have a situation where a student who would like to further his studies is constrained by the inability of his or her family,” said a source, who was part of the inter-ministerial committee.

“We said ‘let’s start with the first years’. We initially had an idea that we can just cover everybody and that would have cost the country in the region of R150billion from first year to third year,” said a source.

“He (Zuma) has been obsessed with that (free education). But the question was where the funds would come from. It was his passion that a solution be found (to fund higher education).

“The president gave the inter-ministerial committee enough time to look into it. And when we met him on Wednesday, he asked ‘what are you recommending?’ And we were clear as technocrats that we recommended a certain scenario. He adopted it,” the source added.

The Treasury issued a statement late on Saturday that it was reviewing the higher education proposals and possible financing options, with any amendments to current spending and taxation to be announced in next year’s Budget.

However, the source also revealed that Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba had been part of the Treasury team that was part of the inter-ministerial committee.

“The minister of finance helped a lot. To reduce it to this level, it was their guidance. Let’s work within this range. We went back and the committee, including him, said bring the cost down.

“The initial one was to cost the country about R27bn, then it was brought down to R19bn, and we reworked it to R12bn. He helped a lot.”

This was confirmed by Higher Education and Training director-general Gwebinkundla Qonde.

“The minister of finance and the D-G of Treasury were part of the inter-ministerial committee and this process. So, we worked in such a way that the money won’t be borrowed money. It has to be found within the current budget setting of government,” Qonde said.

“I am talking about R12.4bn for the 2018 financial year. The money is catering for new students only,” he added.

Qonde said statistics indicated that about 70% of workers in the country were not within the taxable bracket.

“We further looked at this and found that 90% of South African households send about 45% of the students to universities.

“If you look at poverty and unemployment and inequality, you need an intervention to lessen that burden from those households,” Qonde added.

The director-general said students who were above the threshold “would have to make some arrangements themselves, either arranging loans or paying from their pockets”.

“In all respects, those are not from the destitute category,” he said.

Wits University vice-chancellor Professor Adam Habib welcomed the concept of fee-free education but asked how it would be funded.

The university association, Universities South Africa, called the announcement concerning, saying there had been no consultation with key role players before the Presidency released a statement.

Kodwa said the ANC was implementing fee-free education in line with resolutions taken at the adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1955, as well as the free education promise that the ANC made upon assuming power in 1994.

Zuma’s announcement was welcomed by Parliament’s select committee on education and recreation, which said it would rescue many underprivileged students who could not afford university fees.

“The far-reaching response by government is a step in the right direction in responding to the pleas of students within the higher education sector.

“The committee has always held the view that academic exclusion of the poor purely on the basis of affordability undercuts South Africa’s democratic dispensation,” said committee chairperson Lungelwa Zwane.

She said the committee would meet the department to discuss the mechanics of implementing the free fee system.

The Sunday Independent