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UCT protests: ‘Clearly something has to change; there is a bigger story to this’

UCT protests: ‘Clearly something has to change; there is a bigger story to this’
UCT students protest at the Bremner Building Middle Campus at University of Cape Town on 10 March 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

Students at UCT told Daily Maverick how they feel about ongoing protests at the university that have been spurred by NSFAS-related housing issues and financial exclusion.

Students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) have been protesting over housing issues and financial exclusion at the university since Monday, although protests have been rumbling for weeks. Daily Maverick spoke to UCT students who shared their thoughts about what has been happening on their campus.

A first-year student’s experience

Morgan Leak, a first-year Politics and Media Studies student, said: “I was in a tutorial for media and we were taken out of our lecture. I went to go speak to two of the people that told us to leave […] and they were basically telling me how people were not being able to register because of financial blocks. 

“They said a big reason for why they were protesting is because NSFAS [the National Student Financial Aid Scheme] didn’t cover the full amount that they needed for housing and that the average South African minimum wage household [earns] only R36,000 a year, and they needed an extra R25,000 to cover housing and they just cannot afford it … That gave me a better understanding of exactly why we needed to leave our lectures and why all of this is happening.

“I am not personally in that situation, but I can feel for people that are, because it must be hard.”

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Leak was referring to the decision by NSFAS to cap accommodation allowances at R45,000 per annum. The allowance cap has left many students without housing, causing tension at campuses throughout the country.

Leak explained how the protests had affected her university experience:

“Being in first year, it is super disruptive because we don’t know how to work everything properly […]. We didn’t know our lecturers and we didn’t know who to email.”

Leak feels the university’s communication during the protests could be improved.

“They need to email and say that they’re cancelling lectures […]. Today, I came for a tutorial and a lecture – now cancelled […] so I’m just sitting on campus.”

Conflicting feelings

Khensani Moeng, an undergraduate law student, expressed compassion for students struggling with housing.

“A lot of people are struggling to pay for their education and for registration and a lot of people aren’t even registered yet. There’s obviously a lot of frustration […]. People are being sent out of their residences and have nowhere to stay […]. It is obviously very difficult for them. […] Most of them don’t have any connections here in Cape Town […], so they are kind of just left here all alone and they don’t really know what to do from here.”

At the start of the academic year, UCT’s department of student housing decided to revoke accommodation offers to students with fee blocks. Even after temporary housing was provided for some students, the students’ representative council (SRC) noted last Thursday, 9 March, that many of these students were being evicted by the university.

Read more in Daily Maverick:UCT students claim police ‘punched’ and ‘trampled’ them as protests over housing rage on” 

When asked what she thought about the way protests were happening on campus, Moeng said: “I’ve spoken to people who live in residences and who are not necessarily protesting. […] I feel like they are frustrated because there have been so many disturbances. And everything, you know, costs money and everything is expensive […]. And lectures are cancelled and you have to understand the work on your own, which is even more frustrating. 

“But on the other hand, you have so many people who are frustrated over the university, over the government who aren’t funding them. And clearly something has to change, because it obviously isn’t just happening at UCT […] and that shows that there is a bigger story to this.” 

Police encounters on campus

Moeng also spoke about what happened on Friday, 10 March, a particularly tense day on UCT’s campus. Students protesting on Middle Campus were met by police, who, according to students present, acted with a heavy hand and a lot of aggression.

“I know someone who got trampled over by the police and they didn’t do anything to help them. I also heard that they were barricading and blocking off black students and people of colour while ensuring white students were safe. It was racial profiling and that is just unacceptable,” Moeng said.

Responding to claims of racial profiling and aggression towards students, Acting Vice-Chancellor Sue Harrison said: “I know that the presence of law enforcement services on campus is a cause for concern for everybody. I assure you that they would only be present on UCT campuses to respond to unlawful activities under interdict conditions. We are concerned about the claims that law enforcement officers engaged in racial profiling. We reject any form of racial profiling and will engage both Campus Protection Services (CPS) officials and law enforcement to investigate these claims. This process might require us to review video footage of these activities and it may take some time.”

Juliena Levine, an undergraduate student, noted that the issues raised by these protests were nothing new. “I find it quite sad that it is the same problem recurring over and over […]. The university needs to take responsibility for it, because they’ve seen it happen over and over. They should have found a way to handle it […], instead of leaving students homeless and without an education.”

Not just a fee issue

Undergraduate student Mphumeleli Alexander Gumbi also highlighted that what was going on at UCT was linked to broader structural issues in SA.

“There’s an education crisis in the country that is closely associated to apartheid, racism and classism […]. To view this as a fee protest would be wrong, it is more so a protest against the systemic issues in education.”

He said he believed the SRC had been successful in creating awareness of the university’s housing crisis and building solidarity among students.

“I think they’ve done a good job, from my perspective, in raising solidarity between students […] even in the way they phrase emails where they say that even those who are privileged should come stand in solidarity.”

Though not outright condemning the protests, UCT’s ActionSA student chapter has raised its own concerns. Matthew George, ActionSA UCT chairperson, told Daily Maverick: “We have been quite clear in highlighting our concerns about the unsustainable frequency of these protests directed towards the institution as well as their recurring objectives, which by an honest reflection, does make finding a lasting solution quite impractical when one does take into consideration the prevailing physical realities […]. We have emphasised the need to conduct protest action but with regard to the provisions set out in the Constitution […]. The rule of law must prevail.”

Harrison said: “We are focused on getting to the root of the problem of fee blocks and to build a holistic, long-term solution so that we don’t find ourselves having to repeat this process in 2024. Following the Council meeting of 11 March 2023, we will work towards a mediated solution with the students and UCT leadership facilitated by independent external mediators.” DM

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  • andrew farrer says:

    I’d love to know the % of students who voted in the SRC elections at UCT. Probably a minority given the apathy to SRC’s nowdays.
    Whatever, these people should focus their grievance where it belongs, the government/ anc. But they won’t as they’re directed by the anc and will continue to vote for the cause of their problem in 2024.
    The university should consider the proposal made a while ago that all first year courses, maybe barring those where the country has skills shortaages – mainly in the sciences (not social sciences), are given online only. NSFAS could afford to cover laptops and wifi for all qualifying students. Those that pass with (?) 60%, can then attend in person from 2nd year.

  • R S says:

    To answer Andrew’s question, it’s a tiny percentage of people who vote for the SRC. It’s not representative at all. I’ve suggested to people who I know at UCT that voting be mandatory, even if a student just spoils their ballot, to teach them about democracy.

  • Peter Smith says:

    This happens every year when students have debt from previous years. A friend of mine rents accommodation to NSFSAS students. Students regard it as a paid vacation with parties and booze. They capped the amount due the abuse by students. The ANC created the country’s economic crisis over the past 29 years by not creating the environment for economic growth. We live in country where the bulk of the population rely increasingly on grants and subsidies. And students that manage to complete their education are unlikely to find employment. The comrades should not complain, they got what they voted for.

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