WINNIE Madikizela-Mandela, the former wife of the late South African president, Nelson Mandela, has added her voice to the raging debate in the country concerning student fees at universities.
Speaking at a briefing in Soweto on Thursday Winnie said free education is not feasible under current economic conditions. She also challenged the ANC government led by president Jacob Zuma to re-define its goals by revisiting the Freedom Charter which advocates principles of a free society.
“We all know all the universities are on fire. Students want assistance in relation to their fees‚” Winnie said “When we got into government from 1994‚ we realised that the free education we had promised wasn’t going to be easy‚ because we had had a society that was stratified so strangely… We had divided our society into four classes.
She added: “Free education is difficult to attain today because of those problems that start from those times.
“How did we think we were going to get money to fund education and that we are going to have free education in the first place? It’s an impossible promise.”
Turning to the issue of how much fee increase should be permitted at universities, Winnie said an 8% increase suggested by the Higher Education ministry was not a solution.
“We wish it was possible to have free education right away. I also think the government should have tried to meet the students half-way,.” Winnie said. “You cannot say in this current atmosphere the fees will not be increased when the problem started last year and we know the students were not fighting for an increase. They were fighting for free education.”
Condemning the violent protests in some universities which have seen students setting fire to premises, Winnie said the same infrastructure the students were destroying would need to be paid for by the same government they want to provide free education.
She said the only solution was for government to meet students half-way and find a way of resolving the issue‚ but not through violence.
Analysts say the university fees issue has divided opinion within president Zuma’s government with some stalwart senior members advocating free education while others are calling for a tougher stance against violent protests by students.
Commenting on the students protest ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe said if he was Higher Education minister he would close the universities and open them after six months‚ and close the residences for six months. “If you don’t have a responsibility that goes with a right‚ you must actually take away the right‚” Mantashe said. “After a year‚ people will know higher education will be important for their future.”
Advising the ANC to re-examine its political ethos Winnie said: “We cannot pretend we don’t have problems. A lot of things are wrong. One word that is in everybody’s lips is corruption. And who has the answer to that? It’s the governing party. You need to get the governing party to go into retreat for a month and find answers to all the wrong things we have done… we are all worried about the weakness of the rand. We all don’t want to be junk status.”