South Africa

2019 PROTEST SEASON

University academic year starts with a death, arrests and a hunger strike

University academic year starts with a death, arrests and a hunger strike
Striking students gather at Wits University during a protest for accommodation and funding on February 05, 2019 in Johannesburg, South Africa. The students’ demands that all returning students to be given accommodation or funding for accommodation, and they would like all returning students with historic debt (those who owe R100, 000 or less) to be registered immediately. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sowetan / Alon Skuy)

Protest action has flared up around the country as students from university and TVET colleges began the academic year, demanding accommodation, National Student Financial Aid Scheme allowances and cancellation of historic debt. Within the first two weeks, scuffles between students, SAPS and private security broke out on multiple campuses that so far has left one student dead and scores arrested.

Before the academic year had started, the South African Union of Students (SAUS) called for a national shutdown of university campuses. The shutdown, announced on 7 February, was called in response to issues of historic debt, financial exclusion, problems around National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funding and allowances, and accommodation issues.

Last week officials from the Department of Higher Education and Training, including Minister Naledi Pandor, met student leaders and representatives from NSFAS in Parliament to discuss student grievances. Pandor issued a statement in response to 12 issues raised by SAUS.

Volatile campuses

Despite commitments to resolve student grievances, protest action turned violent on Monday at the Umlazi Campus of Mangosuthu University of Technology (MUT) in Durban.

SAPS KwaZulu-Natal Provincial spokesperson, Major Thulani Zwane, told Daily Maverick that police officers “didn’t use a lot of force” on students throughout the protests, “even when students threw stones at officers”.

However, MUT Student Representative Council (SRC) secretary-general Andile Khoza spoke to Daily Maverick and disputed Major Zwane’s statement. Khoza said police officers used “lots of force”, especially when arresting students. Nine MUT students were arrested for public violence and were due to appear at Umlazi Magistrates Court this week.

A statement released by MUT management on Tuesday stated that all campuses will be closed until further notice due to violent protest action. Students were given until the end of the day to remove all of their belongings from campus and external residences.

Similarly, on Monday, the University of Zululand closed its campuses until further notice after protests action turned violent. Students were given until 3pm the same day to remove all their belongings and vacate the campus and residences.

Volatile protest action has flared up around the country since the start of the academic year. On 5 February final-year student Mlungisi Madonsela was killed at Durban University of Technology (DUT) following clashes with private security. Madonsela died in hospital after allegedly being shot by security personnel contracted by the university.

This Monday, students marched to Durban City Hall in protest at Madonsela’s death and demanded the security guard be swiftly prosecuted.

If management doesn’t engage with us we will continue to take our protests to the street,” said a DUT student leader who requested anonymity.

According to an official statement from the DUT executive, classes were disrupted on Monday and students and staff were intimidated by protesting students. The university has decided to suspend all classes at its five Durban campuses until further notice. The Pietermaritzburg campuses will remain open.

Students have repeatedly demanded that private security is removed from campuses.

According to Pandor, violence committed by security officers, police and student protesters is of key concern to the Department of Higher Education and Training.

In her press statement Pandor said that R10-million will be used to conduct an audit on security infrastructure and healthcare facilities at higher learning institutions. The audit will be conducted in cooperation with students and management from universities and TVET colleges. Pandor said the audit will begin immediately.

While KwaZulu-Natal has dominated recent news, the University of the Witwatersrand has also experienced disruptions. On Tuesday 5 February, a group of students from Wits embarked on a hunger strike to raise awareness about issues of accommodation and historic debt. The strike was called off on the evening of 7 February. Wits senior communications officer Buhle Zuma confirmed that a student was injured in the midst of the hunger strike. “The university condemns all forms of violent behaviour and is investigating this incident as a matter of urgency,” said Zuma.

Accommodation issue

MUT’s Khoza alleged that deposits for university residences have increased substantially since last year, although MUT could not be contacted to confirm this fact.

The MUT statement, however, argued that the issue of accommodation was only brought up in the week of the 11th of February, a week before protests erupted.

Previously, the SRC had requested that those students doing post-graduate programmes be allowed to register for free and be allocated free accommodation and meals even if NSFAS is not paying,” stated MUT.

Student accommodation has been a primary concern on many campuses. Students at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) last week erected shacks on the Bellville campus and disrupted lectures while protesting a lack of accommodation. CPUT spokesperson Lauren Kansley previously told Daily Maverick that the university accommodates 33% of its 36,000 students. CPUT Vice-Chancellor Dr Chris Nhlapo also stated that the university will set up a task team to investigate student accommodation.

During the Wits hunger strike, protesting students demanded that all returning students be provided with accommodation or funding for accommodation. Zuma said that the university only has 6,200 beds that have been allocated to students but is working with external service providers and partners to secure additional accommodation.

Those who are in urgent need of assistance will be assisted by the Wits Hardship Fund,” Zuma told Daily Maverick.

In a presentation to Parliament, Dr Diane Parker from the Department of Higher Education and Training said:

It is unreasonable to expect institutions to be held responsible for accommodating all students in university-owned/managed residences.”

In her statement, Pandor highlighted that R4.1-billion has allocated since 2015/2016 until 2020/2021 for student housing.

NSFAS allowances

At MUT students raised issues of allowances and book allowances. The SRC alleges that these allowances have decreased and, in some incidences, students have not received their allowances.

However even from those allowances that were reduced, some students didn’t get them. Approximately over 1,000 students have not received their allowances. Instead, management wants the classes to go back to normal,” said Khoza.

According to the university, 7,022 students have been paid their allowances, leaving only 46 students with issues. The executive has encouraged the SRC to provide evidence that more students have outstanding accounts.

In response to a mass meeting organised by the University of Cape Town’s SRC on 13 February, the Communications and Marketing Department issued a statement claiming that book allowances have been loaded onto their system and will be paid at the end of this month, while registered students have already been paid food, travel and accommodation allowances of R7-million.

Historic debt and financial exclusion

Almost exactly two years after members of the Fees Must Fall movement protested outside the gates of Parliament during the 2017 Budget Speech, students across the country are calling for the removal of historic debt and financial exclusions.

Wits students demanded that any student with historic debt should still be allowed to register immediately. Zuma told Daily Maverick that the university could not comply with these demands.

When it came to the financial portion of the demands, Zuma stated that university has made a concession in the past, including postponing upfront payments of students that are on NSFAS or at the university on scholarship or bursary.

For those who cannot afford to pay immediately, returning students who owe R10,000 or less are permitted to register,” Zuma said.

Pandor said that no university students in good academic standing with outstanding fees should be prevented from registering in 2019. These students are required to sign an acknowledgement of debt form.

Pandor will release a statement at the end of March addressing the matter of historic NSFAS debt. This year, R30.8-billion has been set aside to assist financially-needy university and TVET college students via NSFAS.

At UCT, 81 out of 481 financial appeals from students who had been excluded were unsuccessful. The remaining 400 were successfully granted financial aid.

In an effort to acknowledge the financial burden of students last year, Vice-Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng used funds of R5-million that were earmarked for her inauguration ceremony to cover the historic debt of 100 students.

In response to the current protest action on university campuses, Ministry of Higher Education and Training Media Liaison Officer Lunga Ngqengelele told Daily Maverick that “the issue continues to worry the Minister and the Department”. DM

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