The battle for free university education is headed for a crisis after government revealed plans to announce a draconian mid-term budget, which will include cutting its numbers of civil servants.
Senior government officials told City Press that Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s medium-term budget – to be delivered in two weeks – will put the squeeze on salary budgets across departments, as well as those for goods and services.
While students take to the streets for a fourth week, government remains mum on new solutions, and the country’s clergy is calling for President Jacob Zuma to declare a state of crisis.
A senior government official privy to Cabinet matters said:
“There is no money to subsidise free universities. It is already a struggle to find money to fund the special dispensation announced by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande to subsidise all households who earn less than R600 000 annually.”
The official said the continuing drought is placing additional strain on the economy.
“The question is, what would it take for government to yield to the demand for free education? Does it mean we stop social grants or building houses? Something has to give for that to happen.”
The official said it was likely that after the mid-term budget policy statement on October 26, government would start encouraging older civil servants to take early retirement to save money.
The officials also said government’s appetite to negotiate with students was waning because they negotiated in bad faith.
“Both the president and Nzimande have met with students on several occasions, but whatever was agreed on was discarded after the meetings,” the official said.
The police have decided on a strategy of targeting students who have allegedly committed particular crimes, rather than conducting mass arrests that end up with failed prosecutions.
According to senior police sources, some of these arrests have already been effected and some are due to be carried out in the next few days and weeks.
It is understood that some of those due to face the law include the #FeesMustFall leadership.
The arrests relate to incidents of public violence, intimidation, arson and assault.
The officials told City Press that the police decided to move away from a scattered response that involved dispersing protesters and arresting them en masse.
Last year and early this year, the arrest of student protesters ended in prosecutions being dropped because evidence was not properly gathered. Now the approach is to gather enough prosecutable evidence before pouncing on suspects.
The solidity of the evidence will be such that bail will be difficult to access.
Some of the crimes targeted will carry sentences of several years and the authorities believe successful convictions will deter future violent behaviour.
“We must deal with the criminals,” one police official said.
Discussions are also under way around the feasibility of moving lectures and final examinations to venues away from universities, which will be heavily guarded.
This, however, would only be done if the impasse is not resolved in the next week.
STATE OF CRISIS
General secretary of the SA Council of Churches (SACC), Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, told City Press this week that the SACC wrote to Zuma this week asking him to declare a state of crisis.
The SACC also wants him to form a Cabinet committee that includes parents of students to find a solution to the crisis and avoid protest action beyond Friday to save the academic year.
The presidency confirmed that the SA Union of Students wrote to its office on Thursday requesting a meeting with Zuma. This request is “being considered”.
But Zuma is expected to be out of the country from Tuesday on a trip to Kenya, after which he will travel to India for a Brics meeting.
It is not clear whether Nzimande has scheduled any meetings with students to try to resolve the impasse.
Meanwhile, Gordhan invited South Africans to make suggestions about how to fund university fees in time for his mid-term budget.
“As usual, there is a balancing act that must be struck to give attention to various competing priorities,” Treasury said on Friday.
Treasury said Gordhan particularly wanted public views on funding free tertiary education, as well as how South Africa can achieve inclusive economic growth and use its resources more efficiently.
WITS TALKS COLLAPSE
This week, mediated talks between students and management at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) collapsed.
Mediators – including university alumni Tiego Moseneke (brother of university chancellor and former deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke), Economic Freedom Fighters national chairperson Dali Mpofu and Independent Electoral Commission deputy chair Terry Tselane – failed to help both sides find common ground.
Students insist that free education should be provided immediately and that the university should be closed down until this is declared.
The university said it could not commit to the latter as most students wanted to complete the academic year.
A number of lecturers at Wits said they would not teach tomorrow – both in protest of the “militarisation” of the campus and in solidarity with protesting students.
A Wits insider said the institution battled to communicate with police deployed there this week when they launched stun grenades at students and observers who were marching peacefully, leading to a morning of running battles with police.
“Previously, the vice-chancellor [Adam Habib] was able to ask that police leave when he deemed their presence unnecessary, but on Tuesday, they would not comply,” the insider said.
Habib was not available for comment yesterday.
Police spokesperson Mashadi Selepe said the police needed no invitation to be on premises where “criminal activity or violence is taking place or lives and/or property is under threat”.
Selepe declined to comment on command and control on campuses, saying:
“The department will not peddle command and control issues through the media. Commanders on all levels within the department are well-equipped and competent to exercise command and control within the confines of their mandate.”
University of Cape Town (UCT) spokesperson Elijah Moholola said police were “called on to UCT campuses only on the explicit request of the vice-chancellor or acting vice-chancellor”.
UCT vice-chancellor Max Price was unavailable for comment on police deployments.
Wits student leader Mcebo Dlamini, who was involved in a violent confrontation with police, told City Press that students were undeterred.
“There is no fear because there is no brutality above what we have already [endured], so we are going to continue because what is driving us is the determination and commitment to achieve the cause of free, decolonised education for all,” he said.
He added that students planned to march on either Treasury, the Union Buildings or both this week to demand free education and deliver their model on how it could be achieved.
Universities and the department of higher education had hoped a temporary shutdown would discourage students and that fatigue would set in, but students say they can’t “allow the moment to pass”.
“We are close, so we cannot turn back now. If it does not happen now, it will never happen. We also want to be in class, but we also know that if we back down, this will be an annual event and we will be divided as students,” said a student leader.
Informal discussions are also under way to take the call for free education to the Constitutional Court. Mpofu said students made compelling arguments that could be presented to the court.
“There are a number of arguments to be made around inequality brought about by things such as Bantu education and that government must prioritise the question of education to redress imbalances of the past,” Mpofu said.
“We could use the past imbalances to anchor the argument and use the equality clause as a springboard, coupled with section 29. We would also have to consider whether we head to the high court first or directly to the Constitutional Court. Those are just some of the considerations.”
Questions to Nzimande regarding new plans to deal with the crisis were directed to Harold Maloka, deputy CEO of the Government Communication and Information System, who said government’s only comment was that stakeholders should continue with engagements.