South Africa


Nzimande: ‘Government lacks funds to clear all student debt’

Students during the KZN Fees Must Fall Movement on March 15, 2021 in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. It is reported that the South African Student Union has called for a national shutdown of all 26 institutions of higher learning until funding, historical debt and other issues are completely dealt with. (Photo by Gallo Images/Darren Stewart)

‘The Department of Higher Education and Training is not in a financial position to be able to support institutions to clear all student debt of fee-paying students,’ says Minister Blade Nzimande as he responded on Monday to a set of demands by student union groups. 

Following fee protests across the country, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Blade Nzimande has responded to demands set out by the South African Union of Students (SAUS). 

Last week, SAUS laid out a set of demands to Nzimande — with a deadline to respond by Friday, 12 March. These demands pertain to laptops for students, the clearing of financial blocks for students with historical debt and for a later start to the 2021 academic year. Read some of the demands here: 

Nationwide university shutdown looms, more campuses join protests 

Addressing one of the first claims by SAUS on financial clearance for students with historical debt, Nzimande said in a statement: “The Department of Higher Education and Training is not in a financial position to be able to support institutions to clear all student debt of fee-paying students. We are aware that there are many students whose families struggle to keep up with fee payments, and indeed many families who have also been negatively affected by the Covid-19 pandemic”. 

Nzimande stated he was aware institutions were doing what they could to assist students in need and to allow them to make payment arrangements in order to register where possible. “The historic debt of NSFAS- (National Student Financial Aid Scheme) qualifying students is being addressed through a process between NSFAS and institutions. NSFAS-qualifying students with historic debt are able to register when they sign an Acknowledgement of Debt (AOD) form, while the process is underway,” added Nzimande’s statement. 

Responding to the demand from the SAUS for the immediate provision of postgraduate funding, including advanced diploma qualifications, Nzimande admitted this issue required attention as there is limited funding from the National Research Foundation. Nzimande said: “however, in 2021, the new NRF policy does consider funding of students who were NSFAS recipients”. This issue would be addressed in the policy review process that the Department of Higher Education would be undertaking on student funding. 

Blade Nzimande updates funding plans after Mthokozisi Ntumba’s death and as student anger snowballs

Nzimande said he was “deeply distressed” by the killing of Mthokozisi Ntumba, a bystander who was allegedly shot by police during a Wits University student protest last week, and the call by SAUS to stop the victimisation of student leadership and police brutality towards students. “The issues relating to the police investigation into the matter will be dealt with by the Minister of Police,” said Nzimande. 

SAUS demanded that academic registration be extended until April 2021 due to the current difficulties both students and institutions would be facing. To this demand, Nzimande said, “after discussion with Universities South Africa, it was agreed that the registration period would be extended for two weeks, to ensure that all first-time entering students, in particular those who qualify for NSFAS, are able to register.”

Read Nzimande’s full response here

Meanwhile, protests continued on Monday on some campuses. Some higher education institutions have opened for the start of the academic year – a late start amid the Coronavirus pandemic –  while others were due to start this week.

At Witwatersrand University (Wits), protests have moved through the streets of Braamfontein. Newzroom Afrika reported Wits Student Representative Council (SRC) president Mpendulo Mfeka saying “We will shut down Braamfontein until our demands are met”. The group wants demands, including that of historical debt, scrapped.  

At Rhodes University in Makhanda, members of the SRC and other political formations have met at the university to discuss the shutdown. 

However, SAUS stands firm in their shutdown, which started on Monday.  SAUS claimed Nzimande had not adequately responded to their demands.

“We must make it clear to the public that we are against burning of buildings, destruction of infrastructure and violence … we call upon all students to participate in this shutdown peacefully,” the organisation said in a statement. “Our national shutdown will be premised on the principle of continuous engagements with all stakeholders to find a lasting solution for the sector. Hence we encourage SRC members to continue engaging with their Vice-Chancellors to resolve institutional issues whilst we are engaging the government at national level,” said SAUS. DM


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  • SA should use the Aus model for student fee financing: Pay back, via SARS, once you have a job, at a rate that is determined by your income. What makes the current system so onerous to students is that they have to pay back as soon as they graduate

  • Students protests is part of growing up, but these protests have now turned violent. Blame Zuma for promising free education. Past debts were caused by the students, of whom many did not pass a single subject. There could be part-subsidy, but never free all.

  • That’s a good and fair suggestion. Right now hardly any past student, even those with good jobs, pay back anything. Further, students who have no hope of passing, spend years failing, are living off NSFAS money as a form of income. Entrance exams to start, and ongoing financial support based on satisfactory progress, is the way to go. This EFF (Everything For Free) model is completely unsustainable.

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