President Jacob Zuma played Santa Claus on Saturday morning. He unilaterally changed the entire budget and long-standing education policy when he announced a radical free fee plan for students next year.
On the one hand, it is a huge gift for struggling students. Some top lines: all loans to students at technical and vocational education and training colleges (TVETs) will be converted to grants. This will take the pressure off students and also allow the state to realise its goal of qualifying 30,000 artisans to feed the economy in the short term.
Zuma has immediately lifted the percentage share of funding to universities from 0.68% of GDP to 1 percent. This increased subsidy to universities will be used to hold off fee increases for students from households earning up to R600,000 per year -- this is a big gift to struggling upper-middle-class households.
Christmas gift or legacy-making?
Zuma's gift came like a bolt from the blue, prompting Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba to say room would have to be found in next year's budget. The Heher Commission of inquiry into funding higher education found that South Africa could not afford free education right now.
Zuma has largely discarded the key policy plank of the Heher Commission's work, which was to create a loan structure using the banks but guaranteed by the state. Instead, Zuma has taken almost the full burden of funding a much higher number of students on to an already severely burdened fiscus. In addition, he has saddled his successor with a hot potato: an incoming ANC and country president would be very hard-pressed to overturn the free fee plan as it will be politically costly.
Here's what we think
The president is smarting from an absence of legacy. As Zuma steps down this weekend, he has not received a single positive nor mixed legacy political obituary. The global and local media have been excoriating about his legacy of scandal and economic paralysis. Not a single supporter has written opinion articles in favour of his ANC presidency and, at his gala dinner speech last night, there was only muted applause, even from the president's own ANC comrades.
The free fees move may be seen as an effort to leave a legacy outside of opprobrium alone.
It follows a flurry of statue unveiling. In the past few months, Zuma has attended unveilings of statues and monuments in his honour everywhere, from the Groot Marico to Imo state in Nigeria.