President Jacob Zuma delivers his final political report as ANC president. Picture: MASI LOSI
President Jacob Zuma delivers his final political report as ANC president. Picture: MASI LOSI

A decade after his election as ANC president, when he took the podium at Nasrec to deliver his valedictory address this week, President Jacob Zuma reminded us about his profound ability to apply political dichotomy.

This quintessentially Zuma phenomenon refers to his ability to create an irreconcilable separation between his powers and responsibilities as the ANC president on one hand and the responsibilities of state president on the other.

On the first morning of the ANC’s 54th conference, Zuma surprised all stakeholders by releasing a media statement indicating that free higher education would be rolled out from 2018 — less than four weeks hence.

The statement was the latest twist in the saga that reached crisis point two years ago during the #FeesMustFall movement. Since then, various engagements with stakeholders across the board have been initiated to explore the feasibility of meeting the demands of the student movement.

In the October medium-term budget policy statement, the consensus was that such a programme was not feasible. This was supported by the Heher commission, which investigated higher education fees and stated that the bankrupt fiscus did not have sufficient latitude to roll out free higher education.

The commission advocated a private-sector funded, income-contingent loan system with the state being the guarantor of all the loans.

In response to Zuma’s announcement, questions were raised about its motives and timing. The main suspicion is that it was timed to influence the conference.

In his role as ANC president, Zuma was quite correct. A resolution to implement free higher education was adopted by the ANC at its Polokwane conference in 2007 and ratified five years later. His proclamation simply put into action the plan long committed to by the party. What he failed to appreciate, however, was that he also serves as president of the state.

In his capacity as state president, he is ultimately responsible for the sustainability — financially and otherwise — of the country. Every structure, commission and committee asked to deliberate on free higher education has expressed concern about the state’s ability to fund the programme. In his capacity as the state president, he should have considered this hard reality.

There is currently no indication that he transcended across this dichotomy and reconciled his position as party leader versus state president. Had he done so, a balanced approach that considers financial sustainability alongside political party resolutions would have been evident.

No details have been made available about the source of the funding for the 2018 free tertiary education roll-out and, more importantly, the sustainability of that funding source.

The matter is further complicated by the possibility that new ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa may well have a different idea for funding of higher education.

Politically, however, to attempt to reverse the decision would amount to suicide at the start of his presidency. The current government — barring the recall of the president — having said before that funding was not available, will now have to deliberate whether it can ignore the directive of its political party.

Zuma’s last act as ANC president delivered a political utopia that leaves some type of legacy for himself; and simultaneously leaves the government in a state of financial dystopia. That’s vintage Zuma.

• Sithole (@coruscakhaya), a chartered accountant, academic and activist, chaired the Lesedi Education Endowment Fund as part of the #FeesMustFall campaign. He writes in his personal capacity.

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