Top ANC officials to meet Blade Nzimande over fears of escalating protests at Wits

The ANC’s top officials are said to be planning to meet with Minister of Higher Education Science and Technology Blade Nzimande to quell growing frustration that recent student protests could become a political nightmare. 

Two high-ranking ANC members and one insider close to the South African Communist Party leader said the party’s top six are concerned that the recent protests at the  University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) could escalate into a fiery student movement, much like #FeesMustFall, which drew international attention and forced then president Jacob Zuma to announce free higher education for poor and working-class students in 2017, after two years of relentless protests. 

Nzimande is expected to present the government’s response to the tertiary funding crisis at a cabinet briefing at 11am on Thursday, but the party officials are understood to want reassurances from him that he has a plan to stop the protests spreading to other campuses around the country.

One senior ANC member said the shooting of a bystander, allegedly by police, has raised fears within the governing party that the Wits protest would spark a ripple effect in other universities. 

“The fear is that like 2015 [the] Wits situation may spill over to be full-blown, like Fees Must Fall,” the source said.

Another ANC member said that the national working committee, which sat on Wednesday afternoon, was expected to discuss the university protests.

“It’s very concerning, and it’s something that could result in a national crisis, which is why the national officials must address it head-on. If we don’t address it and stay silent, we will find ourselves in the same situation as before. We underestimated the will of the students then, and we cannot do that nor be seen to do that now, especially while we face an economic crisis and a pandemic.” 

Funding higher education

The M&G recently reported that students at Wits University, which became the catalyst for the Fees Must Fall movement, have staged protests against the financial exclusion of students who owe the outstanding university fees for the past two weeks. 

One of their demands is that the university allow all students with historical debt to register.

There are tensions in the higher education sector over funding issues. On Monday, Nzimande said the National Student Financial Aid Scheme had experienced a financial shortfall, triggering its failure to confirm funding for first-year university students.

Nzimande said his department and the treasury were working to find solutions for the crisis and present the options to the cabinet on Wednesday, the M&G reported.

However, on Wednesday, a 35-year-old man was shot and killed by police in Braamfontein during the protests. He had just finished a doctor’s consultation at My Clinic on De Beer Street when he was gunned down.  

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Dr Tebogo Sedibe, whom the man had just consulted, later told the media that he found three wounds when he examined the man. The biggest wound was below his chest.

The EFF released a statement calling for the arrest of the police officers allegedly involved in the murder. 

In a statement, EFF spokesperson and a former leader of the #FeesMustFall movement Vuyani Pambo said that since the epoch of #FeesMustFall, the government had constructed no plan to sustain funding for higher education. Since the regime of Cyril Ramaphosa had begun, a narrow economic approach of austerity has led to budget cuts that have a direct impact on the lives of the poor, he asserted.

He added that Nzimande has no plan to resolve the funding crisis in higher education. 

“So long as he remains in that position, we can expect further exclusion, collapse in the sector and bloodshed.”

Pambo added that the shooting and harassment of students demanding education is a product of poor economic policy, lack of a developmental approach to education and a regime that resolves confrontations to its failures with violence.

“Central to this entire crisis is the incompetent minister of higher education, who not only has a history of leading the charge to brutalise students, but has failed on all possible metrics in ensuring there is access to education in South Africa,” Pambo said. 

“Blade Nzimande has been unapologetic about students falling. He is on record calling for ‘#StudentsMustFall’. Though these words were publicly uttered under the guise of banter, his words have come to pass in the deregistration of 20 000 students in Unisa. Today, a life has been lost because he has formed a movement called #StudentsMustFall.”

In a statement released on Wednesday evening, the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) lambasted Nzimande and the party’s deployees for lacking in commitment to fulfil the party resolution of free education. 

Its secretary general, Meokgo Matuba, said that there was no “justifiable explanation” why the fiscal adjustments were focused on education to the extent of defunding institutions. 

“The reproduction of social-economic inequalities as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic creates a compelling situation where additional resources should be poured into the education sector to ensure that poor students survive and succeed,” she said. 

“The ANCWL calls for the urgent re-allocation of funds to cover all poor students, and we further call for a moratorium on all universities and TVETs [technical and vocational education and training colleges] with regards to historical debts and acceptance of debt agreements. No student must be left behind, including the missing middle.”

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Lizeka Tandwa
Lizeka Tandwa
Lizeka Tandwa is a political journalist with a keen interest in local government.
Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper
Storyteller.

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