President Jacob Zuma’s unheralded announcement of a no-fee solution for universities called forth cynical responses on all sides. It is a classic populist move, promising patronage to swing blocs irrespective of cost or sustainability. The Treasury seems more interested in keeping its control over the budget than helping poor students get to university. And Zuma’s critics have piled in, exaggerating the cost while ignoring the injustice of the current system. Populism emerges where the powerful ignore the real problems of the majority of voters. It relies on magical solutions and payouts to supporters, and usually ends in tears. But it shouldn’t become an excuse to wish away the social challenges at its roots. The brouhaha over university fees illustrates the problem. Prohibitive fees have real consequences for poor households. By making it even harder for poor students to graduate, they block social mobility, making SA’s profound inequalities even more intolerable for most voters. ...

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