South African reshuffle fails to lift HE sector ‘pessimism’

Experts left underwhelmed by appointment of Nobuhle Nkabane and warn of significant challenges ahead

July 7, 2024
Source: iStock/ mornay

South African higher education experts have been left underwhelmed by the appointment of a relatively inexperienced minister to oversee the country’s universities.

Cabinet newcomer Nobuhle Nkabane has taken on the post after the higher education and science portfolios were separated and Blade Nzimande, who previously oversaw both, was handed the latter. This came after president Cyril Ramaphosa’s African National Congress (ANC) party lost its majority for the first time since the advent of democracy in 1992 in May’s parliamentary elections.

But Nico Cloete, former director of South Africa’s Centre for Higher Education Trust, said it was “perplexing” why Mr Ramaphosa had opted against promoting Buti Manamela, the well-regarded deputy higher education minister, or even keeping Dr Nzimande, in charge of the “volatile and complicated” department.

Though unpopular in the university sector, Dr Nzimande was a university lecturer prior to entering politics, and had been in the role almost continuously since 2009 where he brought attention to the department as a prominent party figure.

Dr Cloete, who is also coordinator of the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa, warned that Ms Nkabane – herself a former tutor at the University of South Africa – would face major challenges trying to reform the “totally unsustainable” National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

“There’s fairly widespread pessimism about where the system is going and everybody knows that there’s trouble coming, that the government cannot afford to continue this funding and if they do anything about it there’s going to be massive disruption,” Dr Cloete said.

“It’s totally unclear what the intention of the government of Ramaphosa is and it [the reshuffle] definitely signals to most of us that higher education is not the priority.”

Jonathan Jansen, distinguished professor of education at Stellenbosch University, claimed that the appointment of Ms Nkabane showed a “deep disrespect for higher education”.

Resource collection: How can higher education make its case amid political change?

Forced into a collation with smaller parties for the first time, Mr Ramaphosa has had to share out Cabinet posts to satisfy his new colleagues in the government of national unity.

Despite promising to cut the number of Cabinet ministers, the ANC has instead increased them, which is the only reason why the higher education department has been split, said Professor Jansen, former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State.

“There was a huge argument made in 2019 to bring together higher education and science. Now they have split it again so that they have enough people to put in cabinet positions from rival parties. There isn’t a good intellectual reason for the split – it’s a mess,” he said.

Meanwhile, the role of basic education minister has gone to Siviwe Gwarube of the Democratic Alliance, who has also been criticised for her lack of experience.

“Not just a missed opportunity, it’s a weakening of the sector,” warned Professor Jansen.

“Two people in education who are highly inexperienced, with no sense of the complexity of the system, and they’re going to fight like hell because they’re from different political parties.”

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles