Jacob Zuma.Picture: SUPPLIED
Jacob Zuma.Picture: SUPPLIED

Former president Jacob Zuma says free tertiary education should have been implemented in SA more than a decade ago, and if it had‚ the country would have produced job creators rather than job seekers.

Zuma‚ who was referred to as a "blesser for free education in SA"‚ was addressing the Congress of South African Students (Cosas) on free education in Durban on Wednesday.

He described the implementation of free higher education as a turning point in SA’s history‚ saying it was a decision that would be appreciated in years to come.

"We forget about the elements that make education so important because we should have declared free education more than 10 years back. We would be very far now in terms of what is that we are doing in every level in our country‚" he said.

"This decision will be appreciated by people in many years to come because‚ for the first time‚ we have said‚ ‘Let’s use our resources to empower ourselves in order to change the quality of life [in] our country’. Implementing free tertiary education was a turning point of our history‚" he said.

Zuma also likened education to a knife‚ which could be used for good or bad.

"You need to appreciate that education was used to further suppress and subjugate us and‚ therefore‚ education must again be used by us to empower ourselves to liberate ourselves fully. It’s just like a knife. You can use a knife for wrong things‚ for criminal things‚ but you can also use a knife to bring about life and development as well."

The former president also lauded himself for splitting the department of education into the basic and higher education departments‚ saying the decision resulted in an improvement in matric results.

"When I became the president one of the things I did was to separate the department of education‚ which was just a huge department. The problem‚ as I saw it‚ was that there was no focus put on basic education. If you wanted our children to be like other children‚ you needed to deal with the foundation. And that’s why I wanted a black child to be empowered‚ so that the black child must help us to get where we need to be as quickly as possible‚" he said.

Zuma said he was tired of not knowing what was going to happen with matric results when they were announced.

"We are now clear what we need to do with the foundation. The improvement that we got from matric results will never go down. It will never fluctuate. It was‚ for me‚ mainly for the black child because the results of matric were only a problem for black children‚" he said.

Zuma said free tertiary education could not have been delayed anymore "because the more we delayed was the more we delayed the prosperity of SA".

"If we love our country — and my view was that even if the money was not enough because of its importance — we should stop other programmes and take that money and pump it into education."

He said government knew that student protests over free education were coming‚ but there was no solution on how to deal with it.

"And that’s why I felt once it’s our policy‚ free education must be implemented. Because almost every year you had protests by students. And almost like monsoon rains‚ people know that every summer they are coming‚ but there is no solution‚" he said.