South Africa’s opposition parties have called on President Jacob Zuma’s administration to urgently give details on the implementation of free higher education ahead of students’ enrolment to universities.
The United Democratic Movement (UDM) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) warned that failure to do so could result in a crisis at tertiary institutions across the country.
In mid-December, President Zuma made a surprise announcement that students from poor households would benefit from an expanded national students financial aid scheme to be implemented in 2018. He however did not give any details.
UDM leader Bantu Holomisa has said it now urgent that President Zuma and his government spell out the plan to avoid a commotion during enrolment this year.
“Universities have issued statements saying they will not accept walk-in registrations. We certainly do not want to see another situation where police resources are stretched to handle disgruntled students should this promise not materialise,” Mr Holomisa said on Tuesday.
In his New Year’s message, EFF firebrand leader Julius Malema called on all students who had qualified to turn up for registration as 2018 was “the year of free education” following Mr Zuma’s announcement.
Mr Malema further said that those who had found themselves working as petrol attendants or retail and security workers for lack of university fees should now enroll at “institutions of their choice for free”.
“We must make sure that in 2018 all academically-deserving students are admitted free to South African universities and FET colleges. The EFF will be at the gates of all learning institutions to ensure that priority is not only given to those who can afford to pay,” he said.
His remarks prompted the Universities South Africa (USAf) to urge caution to avoid chaos that could threaten lives as witnessed in the past.
The varsities lobby further urged students who did not previously qualify for financial aid and who now do after the president's announcement to submit their applications online to the Department of Higher Education and Training that is responsible with the placement of students.
“Applications in all 26 universities had closed towards the end of 2017, no walk-in applications will be accepted,” USAf’s chief executive Prof Ahmed Bawa said in a statement.
USAf said it was concerned about the timing of President Zuma’s announcement, the absence of a clear implementation plan and lack of sufficient roll-out time.
“Ideally, we would have liked a year to roll out the new system; instead we have two to three weeks. We have repeatedly raised our concerns about the use of the student fee issue as a political football. This is not just disingenuous but also opens the way for the issue to be used for purely political purposes as we have just seen,” Prof Bawa said.
The Treasury is expected to issue details of the free higher education proposal during the tabling of the 2018 budget in February.
But Mr Holomisa said it would be too late to wait for the Finance minister Malusi Gigaba to state how the scheme will be implemented.
In recent years, South Africa has witnessed violent student protests over high university fees.