Buthelezi backs disputed new bill

October 31, 1997

South Africa's controversial higher education bill was due to be placed before the National Assembly last week. The African National Congress's dominance assures its easy passage despite a failure to secure cross-party support for the legislation.

After a protracted process of consultation and negotiation, the bill has passed the parliamentary education portfolio committee in the face of opposition from most of the smaller parties, which believe it curtails academic freedom.

Opponents were disappointed when the bill was supported by Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party, which often takes a maverick stand on proposed legislation despite being a partner in the government of national unity.

The bill is based on a cooperative governance model, hingeing on the creation of a broadly representative Advisory Council for Higher Education. This will include students and will advise the minister on rationalising and redirecting the development of tertiary education for national needs.

The concern over academic freedom relates to the powers of the minister of education. The bill was opposed by the predominantly white opposition parties such as the National Party, the Democratic Party and the right-wing Freedom Party, which fear that it ushers in an era of central planning and state intervention.

They believe that the underlying assumption is that tertiary institutions are still in the hands of recalcitrant whites who resist transformation.

The minister has the power to close, merge or establish higher education institutions without reference to parliament. He can also impose different subsidy conditions on different institutions - a mechanism already being used to redress inequities between historically white and historically black tertiary institutions.

What scuppered chances of cross-party support for the bill was a late ANC amendment that obliges institutions to bring their language policies in line with those determined by the minister. The bill originally allowed the council of a public higher education institution, with the agreement of its senate, to decide language policy.

This is an emotive issue among Afrikaans-language universities, which fear that the minister will use the powers to force them to move further to English-language tuition.

Government thinking on language is that educational institutions should be obliged to provide tuition in the language most learners prefer.

New language policy is strongly multilingual, obliging all young people to learn at least two but preferably three languages, and implicitly supports English as South Africa's lingua franca.

Portfolio committee chairman Blade Nzimande said that the government had to meet its responsibilities to those who feared continued discrimination.

It could not leave language policy to individual institutions in a country that had historically been racked by division.

On the other side of the racial divide, organisations such as the Historically Black Universities and Technikons Forum have strongly supported the proposed legislation.

Cecil Abrahams, chairman of the forum and vice chancellor of the University of the Western Cape, has lashed out at the "attitude of the English-language press and liberal academics at historically white universities" as "major obstacles" to the implementation of the bill's proposals.

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