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‘This is not a new problem’ — protesting UCT students voice their dissatisfaction

‘This is not a new problem’ — protesting UCT students voice their dissatisfaction
UCT students protest against fee blocks, financial exclusion and students who remain without accommodation in Cape Town, on 14 February 2023. (Photo: Alinaswe Lusengo)

UCT students share their perspectives on the protest action over a student accommodation ‘crisis’, fee blocks, financial exclusion and National Student Financial Aid Scheme allowances.

The University of Cape Town (UCT) leadership and the Student Representative Council (SRC) are continuing talks in a bid to find resolutions to issues that led to protests this week over what the SRC refers to as a “housing crisis”.

On Monday, the SRC shut down campuses by blocking entrances to the university and encouraging the suspension of academic activity to protest against fee blocks, unhoused students, financial exclusion and National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) allowances. 

These are issues the SRC had been dealing with for weeks before the start of the academic year, after the student housing department’s decision to withdraw accommodation offers from students with fee blocks.

On Tuesday morning, the SRC mobilised students on UCT’s lower campus and by the afternoon, students had moved to Main Road where they were met by a police presence. The road was blocked, with cars instructed to turn away and find alternative routes.

SRC executive members negotiated with the police to ensure no retaliation occurred as the protests were peaceful.

UCT protests

Police monitor protesting UCT students in Cape Town on 14 February 2023. (Photo: Alinaswe Lusengo)

Student perspective

Daily Maverick spoke to some students at the protests to get their perspective on what was happening at the university.

A second-year psychology student, who preferred not to be named, said: “Personally, I think that this problem isn’t a new problem. It’s a perpetuating problem. We come here every single year. [The] SRC changes year in and year out. And when they come in they face the same problem — UCT refuses to lift fee blocks for students who are in need, knowing that there are poor, black students [who] are constantly going to struggle when coming in for school, right?

“Obviously, the SRC is doing all that they can, but it is up to the executive, it is up to Council and it is up to the people who are responsible for us after accepting us into their spaces to make sure we are taken care of so we [perform] to the best of our ability,” said the student.

“We’re giving you four years of our lives. We are just asking for it to not be stress-induced due to socioeconomic issues that we can’t control.”

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Panwell Phakathi, a second-year property studies student, said the protests were important, not just for current students but for those that would come after him.

“We are of the most disadvantaged backgrounds. So, of course you have to protest so that you can have much more equality. And black students, you know, they need residence. They need to get into universities, they need their tuition fees to be paid.

“So, definitely, we have to protest and fight for our rights. Not just for us, even for the upcoming generation. We have to fight. If we don’t fight, nothing will change and things will keep getting worse and worse.”

Another student, Siphesihle Ndzube, expressed their frustration over having to repeatedly raise these issues with the university. 

“I think the first thing is frustration because this is the third year that we’re here [protesting].”

They also noted how the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the financial stresses on students.

“The people whose debt has accumulated, we were protesting in 2021 because of 2020 fee blocks because of lockdown. Debt accumulates in 2022 and still, we’re here again asking because we do not have any means to study.”

The ‘missing middle’

Ndzube said many students fell into the category of the “missing middle” and were unable to find solutions to their debt. 

“Some people don’t even meet the NSFAS criteria, but they can’t even pay their fees. My fees alone were R150,000 a year. How am I going to afford this? My parents can barely afford it. Of course, I was lucky, you know; I had a bursary and I made it, but my friends are here, my friends who cannot register right now.

“It’s people I know personally, they have to take loans and some of them are in a grace period and some of them, they don’t know what’s going to happen or whether they will be eligible to continue. Everything is just going wrong,” said Ndzube.

UCT protests

UCT students protest on Main Road in Cape Town on 14 February 2023. (Photo: Alinaswe Lusengo)

“It’s a crisis and we’re being called [to protest] again. It’s unfortunate that it happens every year. You get tired of doing this all the time, because we don’t want to be here. We’re not here because, you know, we’re just bored and we’re just feeling like irritating management at UCT. We want to study.”

Housing

On the housing crisis, a final-year student named Chanel said, “It is not fair. You can’t just remove people from where they were. There were people who were literally sleeping in libraries. There’s this other girl I know, she’s literally homeless, she’s literally knocking door-to-door.”

Thabiso, a final-year accounting student, has been affected by accommodation issues at UCT. He does not have a place to stay after UCT notified him, eight days before residences opened, that his residence offer had been withdrawn. He had already bought a bus ticket to Cape Town and did not have time to make an alternative plan.

He told Daily Maverick, “I am trying to figure out where I am going to sleep because I can’t go, it is my final year. I went to the fee office to explain the situation to them to say, ‘Hey, listen guys I have a fee block. I respect that. But can you just think about my situation here? Put me somewhere where I can stay temporarily while I am sorting out my fee issues.’ ”

In answer to this plea, the university told Thabiso that they could not offer him a temporary residence. Many unhoused students like Thabiso feel the university is not providing them with meaningful solutions.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Shutdown rocks UCT on first day of study as students fume over fee blocks, housing

SRC censured

Other UCT students, such as Keui Battal, criticised the SRC. Battal supported the cause, but noted how protests could inconvenience some students.

“I think protesting on behalf of the students who face fee blocks and have had their res offers revoked is very valid and a worthwhile endeavour. A problem I have though, which I feel seems to be a common occurrence in the SRC, is that in supporting the plight of some students they neglect others.

“I think it was a really poorly thought-out plan to tell students to not come to campus on the day of the protest, as opposed to an earlier notice. A lot of students spent time, money and other scarce resources to get to campus. As a result of the protests, many students have been forced to have their classes online, which requires the luxury of good WiFi and a quiet space to work,” said Battal.

“In general, I think there’s a level of disorganisation and a lack of cohesion within the SRC that many students notice. If they put forward a united front and communicated more effectively with students, I think more students would support protest action.”

It seems protests will continue as the week goes on. UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola said: “The university leadership will continue engaging with the SRC to resolve issues as speedily as possible and ensure the resumption of in-person academic activities.”

The SRC did not release a statement about whether progress had been made in negotiating its demands with the university. It did, however, release a statement regarding one member — Mila Zibi — who has been suspended from the SRC with immediate effect after being found guilty of sexual assault.

“We stand in solidarity with the victims of sexual assault and stand arm-in-arm with survivors. We will continue to fight against the pandemic of sexual and gender-based violence which plagues our country and world at large,” the SRC stated. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    There seems to be a lack of understanding that the country is bankrupt. The culture of entitlement is understandable given the role model the ANC has been. Tough to be a student with unrealistic expectations.

  • Steven D says:

    Some say that university students don’t show any entitlement but here’s some proof that they do:

    “We’re giving you four years of our lives. We are just asking for it to not be stress-induced due to socioeconomic issues that we can’t control.”

    No, dear student, YOU are here because YOU want to study. The UNIVERSITY is rendering a service to YOU, not the other way around. Don’t act as though you’re sacrificing part of your life to the university; you won’t get any sympathy when you make such absurd statements.

  • Confucious Says says:

    Remember the days of going to varsity to study, play sports and have a good time? Now you go there to be brainwashed and indoctrinated into mind-numbingly bad political ideology.

  • R S says:

    This is telling:

    “We are just asking for it to not be stress-induced due to socioeconomic issues that we can’t control.”

    And the university can? The university isn’t a charity. It’s an educational institution that has to pay millions in bills.

    It’s fascinating regarding this shift in thinking. When I was at uni, it was the uni’s problem to educate me. Not to put a roof over my head and food in my belly. That was my parent’s problem.

  • Bill Gild says:

    UCT continues to fail, in every conceivable way.

    That the degrees and diplomas the university confers will eventually be worth little more than the paper on which they are written, will take time, but the arrival of that point is inevitable – and tragic.

  • andrew farrer says:

    the police should just remove them from campus, and if they resist, lock them up. This appears to be a very small group, so hardly representative! From what i read in the media, it sounds like a minority of students actually vote in SRC elections (but i may be misinformed?). If this is the case the Uni should make voting compulsory and easy. They have student intranet/ apps dont they? Just have an app where candidates (who need a certain number of signatures from registered students backing them for the position so as to limit the field) have to post a picture and what they stand for with a short video. All Students HAVE to review all the candidates and HAVE to vote, ensuring true representation, and more likely an end to this annual extortion.

  • Deon Botha-Richards says:

    Why is the a housing crisis. If they can attend lectures online surely they should stay home and study from there.

    This is the problem we have. Nobody wants to attend the university close to their home. They all want to go to UCT or Stellenbosch or somewhere where they need accommodation which is expensive and in short supply.

    No first year students should be allowed to attend in person, particularly if they require accommodation. Given the huge dropout rate for first years it would be far more efficient for them to stay at home.

    And yes I did all my studies from home, even if it was financially viable for me to go to a university in another city.

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