How to kill hope: NSFAS funding will force students to stay at home

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande appeared to be bothered by the implementation of free education as per the mandate of the government he serves. Picture: Chris Collingridge/File

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande appeared to be bothered by the implementation of free education as per the mandate of the government he serves. Picture: Chris Collingridge/File

Published Dec 31, 2023


EIGHT years after the government was forced to implement #FeesMustFall demands for free education, promised by the ruling party, the government has now backtracked and announced its intention to cut student funding, a move that could kill many students’ hopes and force many to stay at home.

In 2015, institutions of higher learning, along with the Department of Higher Education and Training, agreed to increase fees for the following academic year despite genuine historical accounts of structural exclusion of the working class and poor under the apartheid regime and the difficulties of the post-apartheid era.

This forced student formations and activists to organise and mobilise a unified front under the banner of #FeesMustFall to oppose the proposed fee increment.

The nationwide protests disrupted the academic calendar, and saw widespread vandalism of property, and the expulsion of hundreds of students who had participated in the protest.

Police arrest a student after the UCT science faculty was vandalised during a protest in support of the #FeesMustFall movement in October 2016. Picture: Nic Bothma/EPA

At the time, the government’s response against the students caused public outcry as the police were criticised for assaulting protesters and worse, killing some of those who were involved in the protest for #FeesMustFall.

In the same year, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, who also served as the general secretary of the SACP from 1998 until 2022, came under massive criticism after a video emerged where he was heard saying that if students did not accept his offer regarding a proposed university fee hike, he would start a campaign against the students.

“If these students don’t accept this, we will start our own movement, students must fall,” he said while laughing loudly in the video clip.

This was not the first time Nzimande raised doubt about the government’s commitment to make education accessible to those who could not afford it.

Nzimande appeared to be bothered by the implementation of free education as per the mandate of the government he serves. This was after the March 2021 surprise announcement by the then President Jacob Zuma, when he declared that education would be free to those who could not afford it.

Nzimande said the announcement had caused problems for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

He said Zuma’s action had undermined the recommendations of a commission appointed to look into funding for higher education, which had found that the country did not have the capacity to fund free tertiary education.

“That announcement to say we are moving to a new scheme 14 days before it had to be implemented messed up NSFAS big time, exposed the extent to which NSFAS didn’t have a system.

“It increased the number of NSFAS beneficiaries, and what was worse with that decision, it ignored the work that was done by the Heher Commission and the transitional measures. That’s why we have agreed with the Treasury now that it will go back to the Heher Commission,” Nzimande said.

In 2017, the SACP also tore into Zuma’s announcement of free higher education and said it was opportunistic and part of a ploy to win votes for his preferred candidate for the ANC presidency.

Zuma’s announcement coincided with the first day of the ANC’s national conference in Johannesburg, at which Cyril Ramaphosa was elected the new ANC president.

“The issue of where the money will come from is of great importance and must be clarified as a matter of urgency. The SACP is concerned about the silence of President Jacob Zuma on where the money will come from. We hope that this will not amount to increasing VAT or recklessly using workers’ money, either in the Unemployment Fund or the Public Investment Corporation‚” the party said in a statement.

Nzimande, who was the minister of higher education during the time of the #FeesMustFall protests, was axed from his position during Zuma’s second Cabinet reshuffle of 2017, but he was put right back by Ramaphosa when he took over from Zuma.

Political analysts and former student activists have now warned of another eruption of chaos should students be left in the cold if they don’t get funding.

Political analyst and senior lecturer at the University of Limpopo, Dr Metji Makgoba, warned that the cutting of funding by NSFAS would be a disaster for the black community, which depended on the scheme to access higher education in South Africa.

“This decision is in line with broader neo-liberal policies that have sought to cut funding for social services, such as education and healthcare, in neo-liberal societies such as South Africa. This decision will only serve to reinforce racial inequality and deepen anti-black discourse within the ANC.

“Many students depend heavily on NSFAS, and the decision to cut the fund will cause collective trauma among the black youth who have been the main beneficiaries of the scheme,” Makgoba said.

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