South Africa election: ANC ducks higher education challenges

Funding problems and corruption dog sector, but ruling party manifesto stays silent

May 19, 2024
 ActionSA National Manifesto Launch at Ellis Park Arena on March 23, 2024 in Johannesburg, South Africa to illustrate South Africa election: ANC ducks higher education challenges
Source: Fani Mahuntsi/Gallo Images / Getty Images

The difference in the higher education campaign promises of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) and its main political rivals could not be starker ahead of the 29 May parliamentary election.

Cyril Ramaphosa’s ANC is almost silent on universities in its manifesto and makes little mention of the country’s student funding crisis, the widespread allegations of corruption or continuing governance issues rocking the sector.

Robert Mattes, professor of government and public policy at the University of Strathclyde, said this suggested that the party, which has been in power for 30 years, has run out of ideas.

“The scandals around the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS)…probably contribute to an overall negative [perception] of the ANC for the people that are aware of that,” he said. “It’s not a good issue for them to talk about.”

Once an area of major thought and public policy, Professor Mattes said higher education and research has become just another issue “pushed by the wayside given the enormity of the problems facing the country and the party”.

Jeremy Seekings, professor of political studies and sociology at the University of Cape Town (UCT), agreed that the party’s lack of public commitments suggested that it wants to keep the issue out of its election campaign.

“The manifesto is happy to propose expanding expenditure on social grants but is almost silent on NSFAS funding,” he added.

In contrast, Professor Seekings said the opposition Democratic Alliance’s (DA) focus on effective governance was certainly relevant to the sector.

The DA, which is polling at between 20 per cent and 25 per cent, says the fee-free higher education model is “unsustainable” and is not helped by poor fiscal management, corruption and a declining economy.

It is proposing reforming NSFAS into a tiered system of bursaries and loans to ensure opportunities for the “missing middle” and establishing an effective debt collection system.

Meanwhile, the currently third-placed Economic Freedom Fighters have outlined 69 specific higher education policies, including clearing all historical debts of students, and introducing free, decolonised education for all.

Former president Jacob Zuma’s new party uMkhonto weSizwe has pledged to ensure that education is fee-free and compulsory up to tertiary level, to increase capacity, and to build new campuses in underserved regions.

If the ANC fails to achieve a majority on 29 May as many experts are predicting, it may be forced to enter a coalition with a smaller party. Professor Seekings said a coalition might mean some of the longstanding ANC ministers – including higher education minister Blade Nzimande – being pushed out.

“If so, I would not expect any mourning from the HE sector,” he added.

“[Dr Nzimande’s] track record has not been stellar – like many of his colleagues in government, he has not done much to tackle the serious challenges facing the sector.”

Given the wide range of other issues facing the country – including the stuttering economy, ailing public services, electricity blackouts, corruption and crime – higher education has had very little impact on the election so far, but Professor Seekings said the next minister must make governance a top priority.

“Too many universities have appointed leaders and senior managers who do not appear up to the job; too many university councils have failed in their fiduciary and other responsibilities.

“This is especially true in the country’s second-tier universities, but it is true also in the country’s top universities, including UCT.”

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