No free lunch

11 January 2013

Namibians greeted the recent news that, starting this year, Government will introduce universal, free primary education to learners from Grade 0 to 7 with widespread jubilation.


For so many years, parents across the country have been crying out for some relief from the heavy burden of trying to provide their children with a rudimentary education.

The beginning of the school year invariably throws up heartrending tales of parents desperately scrambling around trying to scrape together every last penny in order to pay for school fees, books and uniforms.

For some parents this usually means selling off their last remaining livestock at giveaway prices, at a time of the year when livestock prices usually show signs of severe weakness anyway.

For others it means throwing themselves on the mercy of ruthless, bloodsucking loan sharks – now made respectable with fanciful but misleading names like ‘micro-lenders’ or ‘cash loans’.

Whatever means parents use to come up with the money, it only seems to throw them deeper into the vicious cycle of poverty and despair.

Experts point out that free primary education will especially benefit rural schools and the rural poor who always bear the brunt of hardship and inequality in this country.

However, we need to temper our joy at the introduction of free primary school education with a few words of caution.

We earnestly hope our Government considered this decision with the necessary thoughtfulness and seriousness before its recent dramatic announcement.

We also hope that it carried out the required due diligence and number crunching to establish that we actually have the money to pay for free primary school education and that the programme is fiscally sustainable in the end.

The cruelest hoax Government could perpetrate against the parents of this country is to make them believe we will have free primary school education forever, but then have to suspend the programme because money has run out.

Telling us that Government has N$50 million available until March and will budget a further N$110 million in the next budget is not sufficient.

It must initially have intended this money for other purposes in the Medium Term Expenditure Framework and NDP4.

Whenever Government allocates money to one programme it means it either has to take away money from, or reduce spending, on other programmes. It is a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Government granted public servants a salary increase of 8% backdated from 1 April 2012, with the promise of an additional 10% pay increase on 1 April 2014 plus a host of goodies such as increased housing and transport allowances.

The Government duly paid out the backdated pay increases in December, with at least one public servant known to have drunk himself to death with his back pay over the festive season – no doubt not the only one.

It pointedly, however, denied teachers – among the worst paid public servants – the 40% increase they had demanded arguing the increase was unaffordable.

Surprise, surprise, only weeks later, in what one can only describe as a disgraceful Machiavellian move the politicians granted themselves a 31% salary increase plus a pile of perks that put those of public servants to shame.

This came in a year when Government gave out generous benefits of N$50,000 each to Veterans of the Liberations Struggle, including N$200,000 each to so-called “Special Veterans” — although many still wonder what makes some of them ‘special’.

It further lavished on jobs to the Children of the Liberation Struggle – jobs for which they will probably never even have to show up at work.

I does not require a great deal of cynicism for people to now ask themselves if free primary education is not an attempt by politicians to buy face after having treated the wretched teachers so abominably.

Does all this have the sound of a coherent economic policy and a sound budgeting framework? No, it sounds more like boondoggles and caving in to entrenched special interest groups. How much longer can this continue before the country and Government coffers run dry?

The one thing this country cannot afford is ad hoc and whimsical management of our national finances.

We do not want a repetition of the fiasco of Government having to plunder the Ministry of Works and Transport’s capital works budget to finance public servant’s pay increases – and no doubt those of politicians.

Another point to remember here is that ‘free education’ does not necessarily equate with ‘good education”.

The most striking lesson we have to learn here comes from our good neighbour Zimbabwe.

When Zimbabwe became independent in 1990, President Robert Mugabe introduced universal, free education and free everything in the country with disastrous results.

Free primary school, free high school, free university, free healthcare and free everything.

If everything is free who pays for it all. Who pays for the teacher, who pays for the books, and who pays for the medicines?

He went further than any political leader in our region to instil the false belief in the proverbial free lunch in his people.

To top it off he showered astronomical and seemingly never-ending golden handshakes on war veterans, and generous pay increases for public servants never stopped flowing – especially before election time.

The printing presses of the Zimbabwe mint had to run around the clock to print phoney money the country did not have, leading to the collapse of the currency.

Now the Zimbabwean government has no money to pay teachers, no money for schoolbooks, and no money for medicines.

These days if Zimbabwean parents want a good education for their children, they collect money among the parents to pay the teachers. So much for free education!

We would have recommended a more nuanced approach to the question of free education for children from low-income families – based on means testing.

We should foster a culture of taking personal responsibility for our children’s education.

There is no reason why those parents who can afford it should not pay for their own children’s education.

There really is no free lunch. Someone always pays in the end!



The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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