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South Africa

GroundUp: Homeless and hungry at UWC

GroundUp: Homeless and hungry at UWC

Some students at the University of the Western Cape live in makeshift conditions and go to bed on empty stomachs. By Ashleigh Furlong for GROUNDUP.

First published by GroundUp

Since February, about 35 students without accommodation have been living in the ResLife building on campus. Sleeping on couches and in abandoned offices, the students have attempted to create some semblance of normality.

Offices in the building, which were partially burnt out during student protests, have been converted into makeshift dormitories complete with timetables and piles of textbooks. But without a kitchen, students struggle to cook, a struggle that is exacerbated by them not having received their full National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) food stipend.

Xolani Zekani from the Central Housing Committee, a student run committee that addresses students’ concerns about residences, said that students on NSFAS had only received R1,000 of their food allowance for the year and that they had received it only in early April.

The grant comes in the form of either supermarket vouchers or a grant for the dining hall.

Another student staying in ResLife said that the lack of food was “very difficult” and that even though there are people trying to provide them with food, it was not enough.

“We are crowded, so we argue a lot,” said a second year student from Knysna. “Management haven’t come to speak to us; we are always going to them. They said that there is nothing they can do because spaces are limited, apparently.”

Luthando Tyhalibongo, UWC spokesperson, said that the university had organised a meeting with representatives of the students occupying the building. “The University is concerned about the health and well-being of the students occupying the ResLife building,” he said.

He added that the university has “identified and vetted private accommodation space” that “can accommodate 92 students, and meets the requirements set by the Department of Higher Education and Training Norms and Standards for Student Housing in Public Universities”.

The Gender Equity Unit has a long-standing food programme for students at the university and the School of Public Health has recently implemented a breakfast drive twice a week. While these programmes provide some relief for students, neither provides three meals a day.

Tyhalibongo said that there are several projects that assist students in need of food support, including the Residential Services Department that runs the Student Resource and Exchange Programme “where students who offer academic tutorship are incentivised by providing them with the basic requirements, depending on each individual situation”. “The University has also partnered with Tiger Brands, and a food pantry will distribute food to students in need,” he said.

In a statement on 6 April, Uta Lehmann, the director of the School of Public Health, said the breakfast drive had been implemented as a “response to reports of acute hunger and a huge accommodation crisis on UWC campus”.

Lehmann told GroundUp that those without residence accommodation are at the core of the breakfast initiative and that many of these students were from outside the province. Some parents had told their children to return home because of the poor conditions.

“So many of these students have fought long and hard to get a matric and get accepted at university. But when they are arrive at university, they are arriving to lots of barriers and hurdles.”

Zekani said that ideally a student should get their NSFAS grant for food immediately, but that this year they haven’t even received the full grant for the first semester.

Lehmann told GroundUp that they’ve known for many years that at the beginning of the year students go hungry. “It is an annually occurring problem,” she said, explaining that NSFAS grant money is usually delayed.

Lehmann said that they knew that students were going to class without food in their stomachs, adding that some students won’t even eat a meal the entire day.

The food voucher system also isn’t ideal for a university such as UWC which is isolated in an industrial area. Students with Pick ’n Pay vouchers need to travel by taxi to spend these vouchers – an expense that Lehmann said is “not insignificant”.

Lehmann said that “the other big issue” is the stigma that surrounds saying that you are hungry. “Many students are very reluctant to say they are hungry.”

Tyhalibongo said that about 5,300 students qualified for the NSFAS food allocation in 2017. “Of those, more than 4,000 have received their food allocation (vouchers or dining hall allowance). The final group of approximately 500 students have been invited to collect their allowances.”

“The University has written to NSFAS officials in an attempt to expedite the allocation of funds to students,” he said.

Kagisho Mamabolo, NSFAS spokesperson, said that NSFAS funding is “released as soon as the university can confirm the total number of registered students and the total cost for study”. He said that they also disbursed R1.3 billion to universities in January to cover the cost of registration and for allowances, while awaiting confirmation of registration data from the institutions.

“Without registration data, NSFAS will have no confirmation of the student and their cost of study, thereby paying the institution for unknown students,” he said.

Mamabolo said that NSFAS are only able to disburse funding for students who have signed their agreement forms.

“Since 2 May, NSFAS has campaigned to encourage students to sign their agreement forms and thus far over 20,000 students have signed online nationally.”

He said that NSFAS has “already disbursed funding to cover the cost of allowances to all UWC NSFAS funded students”. “It is up to the institution to directly process payment to students accordingly”.

A number of students told GroundUp of their experiences living in private, university approved accommodation situated in areas with high levels of crime and with landlords rumoured to be connected to gangs.

Brian Tebele, a first year student from Pretoria, has been staying in the ResLife building for a few months. At the beginning of the year, he was told that the university couldn’t accommodate him and had put him on the waiting list. So Tebele moved into private accommodation in Belhar, where despite being on NSFAS, he had to pay additional costs every month. He said that there was no wifi nor a place to study. The final straw for Tebele was when a woman came into the house asking for the owner, who Tebele said was a “well known drug lord in Belhar”. When the woman left, Tebele was told by onlookers that the woman and her companions were armed.

Another student, who didn’t want to be named, said that she had stayed in private accommodation last year in Stikland. She alleges that there were electricity problems, the shuttles to university were late or didn’t come at all, and their landlord was a “well-known gangster”.

In a statement last week, the SRC expressed “disappointment and dismay towards the entire UWC management on its failure to resolve the issue of residential accommodation”.

Tyhalibongo said that students on NSFAS had their upfront registration payments waived and are permitted to be allocated space at residence. “If the University runs out of space for accommodating students, students may approach private accommodation approved by NSFAS.”

He said that the university inspects the venues to check that they comply.

Rudi Cupido, also from the Central Housing Committee, said that the university is “just turning a blind eye to what is happening”.

Cupido alleged that sometimes multiple rooms are allocated to one student. When the student arrives, they take up one of the rooms and the other spaces are left open. “That’s where some fraudulent activity takes place, because automatically someone that can offer something gets placed in that position,” he said.

Tyhalibongo said that they had not received any complaints with regards to bribery and that the university “strongly condemns any form of corruption or bribery”. He said that those who had direct knowledge of these bribes should report the matter.

Tyhalibongo said in the next three years, the university plans to accommodate more than 2,000 additional students in residences.

He said that UWC had acquired land and buildings in the surrounding areas, but that the cost was still unclear and that a process of preparing public tenders had begun. By January 2020, students should be able to move into the accommodation.

UWC has also received a donation of a block of flats that needs to be revamped. He added that UWC has been selected to be one of six universities to participate in a Department run study that looks at opportunities to increase affordable student accommodation. DM

Photo: Students are sleeping in the ResLife building at the University of the Western Cape because of a shortage of residences. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks


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