As the 2015 academic year draws to a close for 801 688 National Senior Certificate candidates and just under a million higher education and training students, the nation’s attention and that of government must be shifting to the need for a disciplined and successful start to 2016.
As a responsive government, we are currently working with the higher education sector – including student organisations – to implement our commitment that 2016 will be a year in which admission fees will not be raised from their current levels.
As government, we respected the premise of the #feesmustfall given our clear understanding of the poverty that affects a decreasing but nevertheless sizeable number of households around our country.
When we say we are a pro-poor government, our claim is substantiated by the varied programmes we have been implementing not just as the current administration, but as every democratic administration since 1994.
Our interventions are widespread and deep, from the provision of social grants to the most needy among us, to affordable social housing and the exemption of low-earning workers from paying taxes.
Our pro-poor programmes include such features as affordable public health care for all South Africans and the provision of public transport for millions of South Africans who continue to live well beyond metropolitan boundaries.
Through our extensive international relations and cooperation programme, government is continuously pursuing new higher education opportunities in partner countries for young South Africans who come from financially distressed backgrounds but are academically ambitious.
Our pro-poor programme extends to such initiatives as working with communities to create food gardens and other means to achieve food security in areas where some people may otherwise go to bed or start their day hungry.
Our pro-poor programme has resulted in investment of multiple billions of rands over the years in such services and amenities as new road markings, pedestrian bridges, fire stations, libraries and clinics in areas that were simply ignored by the apartheid regime for decades in our past.
These investments are not cosmetic; they are bringing safety, dignity and comfort to communities that were once deprived of such basic human rights, and they are creating new standards of living and quality of life to places where such services and infrastructure are now a common part of our landscape.
Successions of ANC-led administrations have since 1994 prioritised – in word and in budget – health and education as the most important investments in our nation’s most important infrastructure: its people; its workforce.
In education, this focus produced such initiatives as the introduction of no-fee schools and the National Primary School Nutrition Programme that delivers free meals to more than 9 million learners each day; meals that fill their tummies, fuel their brains and reduce the stress under which their struggling parents may be operating.
This focus also produced the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, which currently disburses just under R10 billion a year to academically deserving students who don’t have the financial means to enter our institutions of higher learning.
In view of these achievements and the challenges they seek to address, this government had no inclination or plan to turn its back on students whose recent campaign focused the nation’s attention on the affordability or otherwise of higher education.
Government’s response was quick and clear, even though tough and complex choices are involved: the Minister of Finance announced in the Medium Term Budget Policy Statement that government would take care of the anticipated shortfall, and would explore sustainable partnerships with social partners, including the private sector.
This is the response of a caring government which is in touch with the needs of citizens.
This is the response also of a government which, while it empathises with poor students, does not endorse the violence and vandalism that came with aspects of the campaign on certain campuses.
In a law-abiding democracy where people have access to elected leaders and to our legislatures, we cannot tolerate chaos and destruction of the kind we witnessed.
Government is working every single day with various sectors of our society to ensure that our tomorrows are better than our todays.
It is my wish that as the 2015 academic year winds up, we will reflect critically and creatively on what we have witnessed this year, and that we will commit ourselves to a peaceful and orderly start to 2016.
Together we move our nation’s education forward.