Free education: only political will is missing

Posted on October 7, 2016


There is nothing essentially new about the current crisis on university campuses in South Africa. What we are seeing is a more dramatic rerun of what happened in 1998. That eruption occurred when government failed to meet its 1996 promises made at a “stakeholder imbizo (meeting)” to halt the financial exclusion of academically qualified students.

Another demand by the students at that time, backed by education unions, was that the “upfront payment” required before students could register, be scrapped. Today the difference is that government is being held to its promise to provide free education, by implication, across the board.

In 1998, as with the more recent protests, there was also a heavy handed response by poorly trained police and often “gung-ho” security guards. Eighteen years ago, at the University of Transkei, students were teargassed in their beds in a university residence. Several were injured jumping from second storey windows to escape, others were badly beaten.

The legacy of the apartheid era riot squad lived on then as it did at Marikana in 2012 when miners were shot down, and as it still does today. However, technology has changed: the rubber bullets fired at students now are not the potentially lethal rounds of yesteryear. But the “riot squad” tactics remain the same.

This is then used as an excuse by essentially nihilistic elements to indulge in widespread vandalism and arson while professing to be supporting education and worker rights at universities. Significantly, workers on the campuses and their unions have not been in any way prominent.

But the scale of the protests this year is also much greater than in 1998 and is perhaps a consequence of both the availability now of social media and instant messaging as well as long simmering resentment, especially about student debt.

However, higher education minister Blade Nzimande, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and their acolytes now claim that free and equal education was never the policy of the ANC government. This is simply untrue. The Freedom Charter provisions, underlined by Clause 29 of the Bill of Rights and reinforced by resolutions of the ANC’s Polokwane conference, make this plain.

But government has used a “let-out clause” when referring to the constitutional right to free tertiary education. As the Bill of Rights notes: “[It is a right] which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible”.

This comes down to money. And the government says it does not have sufficient funding. Yet as trade unions, academics and students this week pointed out: there is sufficient money, only a lack of political will to source and to allocate it.

The “stakeholder imbizo” at Kempton Park on Monday also turned out to be something of a damp squib when President Jacob Zuma gave a brief introductory speech and then left for the ANC HQ at Luthuli House. So the suggestions and analyses of most participants were not put forward, let alone debated.

Some students proposed a new funding model: that government contributes 50% of costs, the private sector 30% with student fees making up the remaining 20%. This, they pointed out, would bring the government’s contribution up to what it had been 16 years ago.

It was also pointed out that the estimated R50 billion a year to provide free tertiary education could be covered if the known amount of wasteful state spending and money lost to corruption could be halted. But, especially in a week when it became known that Shoprite chief Whitey Basson was paid more than R100 million in the last financial year, there were calls for a revised and progressive tax regime.

Basson, pocketing R100 million-plus, pays the same top tax rate of 41% as someone earning more than R701 300 a year. This anomaly has resulted in unions demanding that higher taxes be levied on individuals often paid in excess of R10 million a year.

The labour movement has also also pointed out that the corporate tax rate under the former apartheid regime was in excess of 40%. Today it is 28%. A marginal increase to, say, 30% would greatly increase revenue flows.

National Council of Trade Unions president, Joseph Maqhekeni, also took to the Kempton Park imbizo the proposal than a financial transactions — “Tobin” — tax be introduced. Named after the economist James Tobin, it proposes that a minimal — perhaps 0.05% — tax be levied on all financial transactions.

This tax has been supported by the International Trade Union Confederation and by the British Trade Union Congress. The TUC estimates that such a tax would bring in more revenue in Britain than value added (VAT) and income tax combined.

Locally, it has been proposed that this tax be levied, along with a progressive income tax regime that could levy a 10% tax on incomes of more than R500,000, 15% on more than R1 million and so on, up to a top rate of between 50% and 60%.

Political will is clearly required.