Zuma Says Free College Education Is Possible in South Africa

  • President gives his first interview after student protests
  • Zuma explains why he agreed to a freeze on university fee hike

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma said free university education is possible, four days after he acceded to demands of students to freeze fee levels for next year following nationwide protests.

“It’s possible, but it’s not a question you can do overnight,” Zuma, 73, said on Tuesday in an interview at his residence in Pretoria. “You’ve got to be able to have the resources.”

Thousands of students demonstrated across the nation for almost two weeks, leading to clashes with riot police at Parliament in Cape Town and at the government’s offices in the capital. After meeting with student and university leaders on Oct. 23, Zuma agreed to leave tuition unchanged and promised to investigate wider issues preventing poor people from accessing tertiary education.

“It was clear that if we did not have a solution the demonstrations would have gone further,” Zuma said in his first interview since the fees announcement. “They were very courageous. I sympathize with them. I know that the cost of education in South Africa is very high.”

The concession means the state and universities must find an additional 2.6 billion rand ($190 million) at a time when the economy is close to a recession and at risk of a credit-rating downgrade.

The #FeesMustFall Twitter campaign was fueled by rising student costs, including fees, housing, food and textbooks that can exceed 100,000 rand ($7,300) a year. First-year tuition alone at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where the protests started, ranges from about 32,000 rand to more than 58,000 rand.

Stun Grenades

Since the end of apartheid, student enrollment at South Africa’s universities has doubled to about 1 million, 72 percent of whom are black, according to Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande. The government wants that number to rise to 1.6 million by 2030, and has opened three new universities since the start of last year.

Zuma said he decided not to meet the students, snubbing their demands, outside his Union Buildings offices after seeing them battle with police, who used stun grenades and water cannons on the demonstrators who were throwing stones and building fires on the buildings lawns.

“There was anxiety because the behavior of the students outside was quite something,” Zuma said. “I don’t think it was therefore prudent to just go and meet the stones and therefore move away from the important issue of addressing the cause of the protests.”

The demonstrations were not a sign of widening discontent with the government of the ruling African National Congress, Zuma said. “Some forces are using the student issues to create a particular atmosphere,” he said.

Zuma Criticism

Students posted criticism of Zuma and the ANC on Twitter during the demonstrations, saying that they had been promised free education in 1994 when South Africa held its first all-race elections. Some said the ANC would be punished in elections scheduled for 2019.

The demonstrations were part of a push by mostly black students to ensure equal access to an economy still dominated by whites, Zuma said. The University of Cape Town in April removed a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, who funded campaigns to colonize parts of southern Africa, from its campus after students decried the presence of symbols of black oppression.

Most universities resumed their activities on Wednesday. The concessions won from Zuma were a "short-term victory," though the greater struggle for free education continues, the Student Representative Council at Witwatersrand university said.

“We have won the battle, a great battle, but the war for free education continues with a renewed strategy,” they said.

Zuma was sworn in for a second term as head of state after the ANC won elections last year. The party will decide on its leader in 2017, a post for which he would be able to stand for a third time even though he could not serve as head of state. He declined to confirm remarks made to the Johannesburg-based Mail & Guardian newspaper this month, in which he said he would not seek a third ANC term.

“Even the president has no right to take his own decision,” Zuma said. “We don’t act as individuals, the ANC guides us. To begin to raise a debate about it now does not help the ANC. The ANC must take its time, it has its own processes wherein that matter will become clearer.”

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