South Africa really can’t afford free education for all despite the liberation promise

Students have been protesting against fees for two years. They just might carry on.
Students have been protesting against fees for two years. They just might carry on.
Image: AP Photo/Denis Farrell
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South Africa may never be able to make good on its liberation promise of free education for all. On Nov. 13, a commission appointed to investigate the possibility of free higher education confirmed it had found it was not feasible (pdf), an outcome that may see the country’s campuses erupt in protest again.

The promise of free education is one South Africa’s liberation heroes have made since 1955 through the Freedom Charter document. The commission’s findings contradict the charter’s dreams and president Jacob Zuma’s compromise to students during the 2015 #FeesMustFall protests that free education was indeed possible. The plan outlined by the Heher Commission requires the kind of public goodwill and administrative efficiency that the Zuma government just doesn’t have right now.

The Heher commission, which was set up by Zuma, suggests Technical Vocational Education and Training colleges be made free but for university “those who can afford to pay must pay.”

Along with scrapping registration and administration fees, the commission also suggested a “cost-sharing model” known as an income contingent loan in which the private financial makes funding available through loans, which the state will then buy or guarantee. Repayments, the commission suggested, will be collected via the South African Revenue Service.

The Heher Commission’s solution requires the state to stand as guarantor for potentially thousands of student loans. In his first mid-term budget, recently appointed finance minister Malusi Gigaba warned that national debt could gobble up 60% of the GDP by 2022. The only option, he said, was to rein in public spending, and that was before he had to factor in the state potentially taking on student debt.

The banks also seemed less than enthusiastic about the proposal: “For banks to commit to a proposal of this nature, a comprehensive financial model would need to be developed in order to assess its feasibility,” the Banking Association of South Africa said in its submission to the commission.

Some South African universities were more enthusiastic about the public-private partnership. University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits, in its submission to the commission argued that the private sector and endowments and donors could be a viable solution to underfunded schools.

During their testimonies to the commission, student organizations conceded that while free education may need to be implemented in phases, it could be done. They gave practical responses like reprioritizing government spending and reducing corruption.