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Annual student fee protests are like a soapie, says Education Minister Nzimande

University of Witwatersrand students protest against financial exclusion on 15 March 2021 in Johannesburg. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo)

Lasting solutions for the ongoing student protests need to be found, Parliament heard on Tuesday. This comes as student protests continue for a second week with no clear end in sight.

On Tuesday, 23 March, in Parliament, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology Blade Nzimande said student protests, which have become an annual issue, were “like a soapie now – it’s like the Bold and the Beautiful”. This was as protests on campuses continued for a second week across South Africa. 

Nzimande, his deputy, Buti Manamela, the South African Union of Students (Saus), Universities South Africa (USAf) and representatives from Wits University briefed Parliament’s higher education oversight committee about the protests.

The meeting was postponed last week when Nzimande, Manamela and Professor Ahmed Bawa from USAf had to leave at different times due to pre-arranged meetings. 

On Tuesday, Nzimande said the heart of the issue was that “NSFAS [National Student Financial Aid Scheme] students were catered [for]”, but the problem was with students who fell into the missing middle category.

Nzimande said his department was engaging with universities, who then engaged with student structures to determine who needed financial support. He said a funding model for universities, including for missing middle students, needed to be given to the Cabinet in June. 

Saus spokesperson Thabo Shingange came out with guns blazing against Nzimande, who failed to pitch up at a scheduled meeting between himself and the union on Sunday 21 March in Tshwane. This was yet another meeting that Nzimande failed to attend, following missing a meeting with Saus in November last year to discuss the 2021 academic year. Shingange said Nzimande’s absence from key meetings  “reaffirmed the need for shutdown”.

Saus called for a nationwide university shutdown following an impasse with Nzimande over issues of student debt, access to laptops and a delayed start to the 2021 academic year. 

In response to the committee, Nzimande said he had been “chased by the very same issues” which had been raised. Some issues raised by the committee included student debt, funding for missing middle students and the implementation of the Heher Commission report into student funding.

Nzimande addressed Shingange directly and said he was “anxious that the shutdown must stop” because the 2021 academic year was short and South Africa was likely to head into a third wave of Covid-19 infections. 

He was then released from the meeting as he had another meeting. 

A lasting solution about student funding needed to be found, said USAf’s Bawa. This was so the sector did not end up with “the same situation every year”. 

Bawa suggested a rethink of student funding should occur: it should be viewed as an “investment” rather than an “expenditure”. 

Some MPs made recommendations about the next steps. One such suggestion was from #FeesMustFall activist turned MP, Nompendulo  Mkhatshwa, who suggested the different stakeholders undergo conflict resolution training with the Department of International Relations and Cooperation. 

Committee chairperson Philly Mapulane said he is holding discussions with police committee chairperson Tina Joemat-Pettersson about a joint parliamentary meeting to discuss police action against students during protests.

Nzimande and his department are scheduled to meet again with Saus to discuss student demands and the national shutdown. 

About the upcoming meeting between Saus and Nzimande later this week, Mapulane said, “Hopefully, we can get a good outcome so that the shutdown can be lifted.” DM

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