Blade Nzimande. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

Blade Nzimande. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

It came as a bolt out of the blue, surprising economists and those who’ve grown to expect only fiscal lunacy from government. On Monday Blade Nzimande, the higher education minister and leader of the SA Communist Party, did the necessary and difficult thing: he announced that universities will be allowed to hike their 2017 fees by up to 8%, following a fee freeze this year.

It was so unexpected, mainly because it’s especially rare for politicians (outside treasury, at any rate) to make the right financial call. This is especially so when it’s a decision that Nzimande knows will be deeply unpopular. Yet he drew a line in the sand, telling students that they can protest all they want, SA will only do what it can afford.

It also comes in the wake of the ANC having said, after its hammering in the local elections, that "the principle of no-fee increase in universities should remain in place".

Yet Nzimande, the 58-year-old political veteran with a PhD in sociology and a master’s in industrial psychology from the University of Natal, chose sanity over populism.

Students are furious, obviously. But the reality is that while it might have seemed like last year’s fee freeze was a concession to the poor, it was, in fact, the opposite.

All it did was make university education cheaper for rich students, while curtailing the university’s ability to provide financial aid to poorer students through grants.

Monday’s announcement was actually a hybrid solution. While allowing universities to hike their fees by up to 8%, Nzimande also said that government would find R2.6bn to fund any increases for the "missing middle" — the 70% of students whose parents’ income was lower than R600,000, but who didn’t qualify for loans from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme.

In practice this means that 75% of the students at, say, the University of Johannesburg, will see zero fee increase.

For the universities, this is also a lifeline. After all, cut the fees, and the ability to keep experts will fall, and the gold standard of university education will become significantly tarnished.

Cynics might say that Nzimande had no other choice, but this isn’t entirely true.

Yes, the universities argued that they needed a minimum of an 8% fee hike to keep them out of the red, but the Council on Higher Education said they could probably live with a 6% increase. So Nzimande could have opted for the lower amount, but he made the harder choice.

His decision had added significance in a week when the ratings agencies, who have warned that the closely contested local elections may spark a move to more populist policies, touch down in SA.

Instead, the fact that all talk of "zero-fee" increases has been scotched suggests that some in government have the stomach to make the right decisions. It’s also positive for government finances, as a complete fee freeze would have cost the country R2bn.

There has been a backlash from the students, who rightly point to the fact that government pays less for university education than many other countries — just 0.75% of public spending goes on post-school education, even lower than the 1% of middle-income African countries.

Already this week, students at Port Elizabeth’s Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University blocked the entrances in protest, 31 protesting students at the University of the Witwatersrand were arrested, and classes were cancelled across the country.

"This will only strengthen our resolve ... government is not playing ball," one Wits student, 22-year-old Tshepo Mnguni, told reporters. "We are not doing this for ourselves, we are doing this for future students."

Nzimande now needs to come up with a comprehensive plan for fees, rather than putting out fires every year.

Whether he’ll be around much longer is anyone’s guess.

Perhaps, with talk rife that President Jacob Zuma is keen to purge his cabinet of SACP members, Nzimande knows the writing is on the wall, so he has little to lose.

Who knows? But for this moment, it’s a desperately welcome sign that even amid the din of cabinet crackpots like Mosebenzi Zwane and David Des van Rooyen, there are some people willing to make the tough, and right, economic decisions.