Free Education for All Now!

Statement by Socialist Youth Movement and Workers and Socialist Party

The announcement by President Zuma that government will provide free education for poor working class and lower middle class students, with family incomes of less than R350 000, has understandably been met with cynicism and repugnance for its opportunism. It is nevertheless a major concession to the #FeesMustFall movement and represents a milestone in the struggle for free education.

Whilst this ‘official concession’ should be celebrated, far more importantly, it must be used to mobilise and rebuild a mass, #FeesMustFall campaign to enforce implementation. The campaign must further demand the extension of free, quality public education to all young people without distinction on the basis of family income. The rich elite and corporate monopolies should be taxed to fund free education.

Zuma’s opportunism

The announcement follows months of the president refusing to release the Heher report on free education and maintaining a deafening silence after its release. Zuma’s unilateral declaration on the sidelines of the ANC’s 54th elective conference, where the matter could have been collectively discussed by the ruling party, has correctly raised questions about the sincerity of his motives. The timing of the declaration of ‘free education for the poor’ is a barefaced political manoeuvre of the Zuma faction, which was clearly losing the struggle to elect his ex-wife, Nkosazana-Dlamini Zuma to succeed him to the presidency of the ANC.

Zuma’s announcement is a cynical attempt to manipulate so-called ‘unity’ delegates by portraying his faction as representing the notion of ‘radical economic transformation’. It is also an attempt to appear to be responsive to the desperate craving of working and middle-class people for an improvement in their lives which has worsened over the past decade. Against the background of the ANC’s disastrous neo-liberal economic policies, the global financial crisis of 2008 was followed by two recessions, deepening poverty, mass unemployment and inequality, shattering what hope remained for a better future.

He clearly also reckons that as the outgoing president, who faces the real prospect of being recalled regardless of the congress’s election outcomes, he stands to lose nothing from such a populist manoeuvre. With his presidency mired in scandal, Zuma hopes to leave a political legacy as the president who supported the most popular demand of the youth and the working class at the present moment.

Victory belongs to #FeesMustFall

However opportunistic Zuma may have been in the timing of his announcement, it is not the factional struggles at the top that have been decisive on this question but the hot-breath of the anger of the youth. The prospects of a repetition of the major political defeat government suffered at the hands of FMF in 2015 terrifies the ruling elite and remains concentrated in their minds, forcing the matter onto the agenda as a factor in the factional squabbling. It was this fear of a massive backlash which made Zuma sit on the Heher report for so long until the start of the exam period. He knew from his many, recently revealed spies in FMF that it will make mobilisation extremely difficult, and after the release, he knew to wait in order to gauge the reaction of FMF, before he could commit the government to any position that could potentially escalate the situation in the event of a mass response from the student movement.

A mass campaign still necessary

#FeesMustFall must be under no illusions that free education will be implemented next year without a struggle. Government has no plan or intention of delivering it. At a minimum, the Minister of Finance would have hinted at it in his Mid-term Budget review, if government had it in their plans. On the contrary, Minister Gigaba has been preaching the neo-liberal gospel of austerity and cuts in public spending to appease the police of finance monopoly capitalism, the credit-rating agencies.

Zuma recognised the high probability of defeat and didn’t like the implications of it, mostly for his future. To keep power and stay out of jail, he will do or say anything. However, we should fully exploit these divisions of opinion, including Zuma’s opportunistic declaration, to hold government fully accountable and rebuild a mass campaign for free education next year.

The Socialist Youth Movement repeats its call for an all-FeesMustFall national conference based on the representatives of all organisations of the revolutionary student movement in this country, and elected delegates from FMF campus assemblies to map a way forward. There is a need to develop a programme of rolling, mass action that can unite the entire student population and mobilise solidarity from the trade union movement and the organised support of working class communities.

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