Is Blade safe from the ANC's knives?

Students are pushing for the minister to be fired. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Students are pushing for the minister to be fired. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

First it was students, followed by opposition parties. Now even his close allies in the ANC seem to have their knives out for beleaguered Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande.

The ANC-led youth movements are unanimous that Nzimande has failed students and he should be removed from his ministerial position. On Thursday the party’s youth structures told the ANC in a meeting at its headquarters, Luthuli House, of what they regarded as Nzimande’s failures. And that he must go.

Elsewhere in the ANC, informal proposals that Nzimande, who is also general secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP), be removed from the higher education ministry were being discussed.

Those in favour of his axing said the minister had failed to provide the necessary leadership after the protests against higher university fees began about two weeks ago. But the sources said it was unlikely that Nzimande would be fired altogether.

“He will not resign. The best that can happen is to move him to another portfolio,” said an ANC national executive committee member. “People are trying to pre-empt the president’s expected reshuffle.” 

Initially, the ANC Youth League was coy about the #FeesMustFall protests, allowing student formations and student representative councils to lead demands to stop fee increases and to insist on free education for poor students. 

By Thursday morning, however, the youth league said it was determined to push the ANC to fire Nzimande as minister of higher education. League president Collin Maine was the first youth leader to suggest that President Jacob Zuma replace Nzimande. This emboldened provincial structures of the league to make similar calls, with the youth league in Gauteng calling for Nzimande to take an early retirement. 

Mondli Mkhize, the league’s national spokesperson, said Nzimande had “failed to intervene at the right time and he failed in the mandate he was entrusted with”.  He said that, instead of dealing with the anger over fees, Nzimande told students that the matter was not a crisis. 

The youth league in Gauteng criticised Nzimande in stronger terms: “We should never have to convince a communist that free, quality education is a necessity … particularly for our developmental state. We are tired of the comrade’s lengthy speeches, with little action,” the provincial structure said in a statement on Thursday. 

Mcebo Dlamini, a Wits University student leader seen as a catalytic figure of the #FeesMustFall campaign, told the Mail & Guardian that every time Nzimande opens his mouth, what he says shows he is failing in his portfolio. “All we are saying to the minister is that he must take us seriously.”

He added that students expected Nzimande to declare the fee increases proposed by various universities a national crisis – and then come up with tangible solutions. 

“We do not want fee increases this year,” he said. “That is all.”

Dlamini criticised Nzimande for the meeting he held with vice-chancellors on Tuesday because student movements were not represented. 

“Nzimande must know that there will be serious consequences if they undermine us,” said Dlamini.

The secretary general of the ANC-aligned Congress of South African Students (Cosas), Khulekani Skosana, said Nzimande must “show his communism” and uphold the resolution of the ANC to offer free, quality education to poor students. 

“Just like Blade Nzimande is sitting on a number of qualifications, we too want to study and become ministers,” he said. “But we can only do that if we get free, quality education.”

Skosana said students would not negotiate with Nzimande and would never accept his proposal of a 6% fee increase for 2016. 

“The minister must start implementing the resolution of the ANC that the poor will get free tertiary education or [else] we are going to intensify the fight,” he said. 

Skosana said Nzimande’s defence that the National Students Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) was helping poor students was not good enough because the scheme only put students in debt. Only free education – as described in the Freedom Charter – would be acceptable, said Skosana.

The president of Sasco, Ntuthuko Makhombothi, said the organisation was at the moment prioritising “zero-fee increments” and not commenting on whether or not Nzimande should stay in his job.

The only youth formation to defend Nzimande is the Young Communist League, which, on the one hand, says it supports students, but on the other has declared its firm support for the minister. 

In a litany of press statements, the young communists and the SACP have defended Nzimande, saying he could not single-handedly implement free education. 

The young communists’ national spokesperson, Khaya Xaba, said they were “revolted by the perpetual singling out of comrade Blade, as if he is a messiah who will wake up tomorrow and just declare free education for all, without the support of all his colleagues in government, including the president and treasury. The mischievous use of comrade Blade as a scapegoat for the failures of a collective must end immediately.” 

Trade union federation Cosatu, whose leadership is also seen as close to Nzimande, seemed to contradict itself over the besieged minister. Provincial structures and affected union Nehawu pledged their support for students and joined the protests in solidarity.

But Cosatu’s national leaders insisted Nzimande was not “Father Christmas who will deliver free education”.

ANC, Zuma meet with student protesters

The ANC hurriedly met student leaders on Thursday in a desperate attempt to appease university students angered by increasingly unaffordable tertiary education fees. President Jacob Zuma was expected to meet university management on Friday.

Student protests, now entering their second week and affecting the entire country, continued despite the arrest of scores of protesters. Wednesday saw violent clashes between students and police in the Parliament precinct, resulting in the arrest of 29 protesters.

When information emerged that six students had been charged with among others, treason, both the ANC and the Hawks denied it, accusing journalists of “irresponsible reporting”. This claim was however quickly discredited when on Thursday lawyers for the so-called Bellville Six, Bruce Hendricks and Popo Mfubu, confirmed their clients’ charges included treason.

A picture of student Kevin French’s charge sheet, distributed on social media, showed that some of the students were detained for “trespassing, illegal gathering and high treason”. Hendricks told eNCA that initial charges included treason, but that this charge was dropped.

All 29 students who were arrested on Wednesday in Cape Town were released on Thursday with a warning. They are due back in court on February 23 2016. – Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge is the Mail & Guardian's political editor. Raised in a rural village, she later studied journalism in a township where she fell in love with the medium of radio. This former radio presenter and producer previously worked as a senior politics reporter for the Mail & Guardian, and writes on politics, government, and anything that gives the disadvantaged, poor, and the oppressed a voice.
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