Last week, on the afternoon of 27 September 2018, Wits University students mobilised and organised themselves to march towards the City of Johannesburg Municipality to hand a memorandum to Mayor Herman Mashaba demanding that the municipality does not increase rates, to avoid a rise in student accommodation costs.
The struggle for affordable accommodation is ongoing against renter-capitalists who seek to turn universities into profit-making machinery. Accommodation is supposed to be affordable; however, capitalism’s rentiers take advantage of the scarcity of accommodation for students and charge high prices, such as in the case of South Point and Student Digz in Braamfontein for University of Johannesburg and Wits students.
This struggle for affordable accommodation renders the introduction of free education meaningless. It is clear that free education is a historic victory for students. It was not achieved for free, but through students’ massive protests against the government with some serious consequences — some student activists are facing jail and others, such as Khaya Cekeshe, remain in jail.
In addition, the struggle for affordable accommodation is intrinsically linked with other social movements such as the Reclaim the City movement in Cape Town, which advocates for public land to be developed and used for affordable housing. This struggle is not dissimilar to the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement struggle, which is fighting for the government to use the land to address the housing crisis in that country. In this case, in 2015 the Joao Pinheiro Foundation reported that there was a housing deficit of 6.2 million houses in Brazil – meaning 6.2 million family units did not have housing.
The student accommodation crisis needs to be addressed or the government will be confronted with a massive protest that can threaten its legitimacy, as #FeesMustFall 2015 and 2016 did. Government’s symbolic legitimacy depends on people’s satisfaction with government performance. The student cry for affordable accommodation should be a priority. Accommodation is an essential need for students and people in general, as The Freedom Charter alluded to in 1955:
“There Shall be Houses, Security, and Comfort! All people shall have the right to live where they choose, be decently housed, and to bring up their families in comfort and security; Unused housing space to be made available to the people; Rent and prices shall be lowered, food plentiful and no-one shall go hungry; A preventive health scheme shall be run by the state…”
This year marks 63 years since The Freedom Charter was adopted. It explicitly outlined that rent and purchase prices for land and housing shall be lowered. However, students in our universities sleep in libraries, go to classes hungry and are faced with highly priced accommodation.
All of the aforementioned challenges benefit the rentier capitalists. For example, being a student at Wits University, staying at The Wits Junction accommodation, a student expected to pay the deposit of R13,000 and the rounded-off accommodation price a year ranges from R55,000 to R65,000 for 10 months. Private accommodation such as South Point buildings, which is 40 percent owned by the Unemployment Insurance Fund through the Public Investment Corporation, charges very high prices:
Johannesburg South Point KSI Braamfontein 2018 Prices:
Rent pa (10 months)
South Africa is a country with inequality, poverty and unemployment. All those problems mostly affect black people. Eddie Webster, David Francis and Imraan Valodia reported that:
“The richest 10% owns 95% of South Africa’s wealth which are products of an economic and social system that continues to produce inequalities.”
Student from backgrounds of poverty, with parents faced with unemployment and low income, cannot afford accommodation and they are likely to drop-out.
South Africa’s education system is supposed to be a vehicle to reduce inequality and elevate people from poverty. The government needs to provide students with affordable accommodation that will make the schooling environment conducive.
This correlates with the government’s commitment to making an environment conducive for investors to the point that it subsidises the automotive industry to the tune of R23-billion. Numerous subsidies and bailouts of industry prove that government has the capacity and will to subsidise sectors of the economy it deems essential to economic development.
The government needs to buy buildings near universities and TVETs and renovate those buildings to provide affordable student and varsity workers’ accommodation. This accommodation will not be driven solely by profit-making but it will boost the ANC’s 54th National Conference resolution of building the national democratic society characterised by the developmental state.
The envisaged developmental state must increase the population’s access to education because in the 21st century ideas and knowledge will drive economic growth. The vision of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is centred around technological education in which countries with a low quality of education will likely be spectators due to lack of innovation, production of ideas, and democratisation of knowledge.
The accommodation crisis will never be resolved by universities alone — national and local government have to play their part. For instance, student numbers at the urban-located Wits University have increased drastically from about 19,000 in 1999 to about 37,000 today. The then Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, said in 2012 that government would be unable to solve the shortage os 200,000 university beds.
The Higher Education and Training Department’s September 2011 report on the ministerial committee for the review of the provision of student housing at South African universities suggested that given the dire shortage of suitable student accommodation, a public-private partnership model recommended that:
Given the dire shortage of suitable student accommodation, public-private partnerships in the form of student villages, particularly in the metropolitan areas, should be explored further;
Mechanisms designed to foster and enhance co-operation between all stakeholders involved in the provision of student housing and accommodation need to be established, under the auspices of the department.
An investigation into universities’ use of reserves for priorities such as student housing should be undertaken.
A “wealth tax” mechanism should be explored as a way of increasing residence access to disadvantaged students.
The government must address the accommodation crisis. Great sacrifices were made to establish a people’s state. In the same breath; students will not get affordable accommodation without a fight — students have to mobilise and organise themselves. The protest by Wits University students on 27 September was only the beginning.
In response to student protests, our government must establish a solidarity economy and green universities. For example, Stephen Devereux of the National Research Foundation told the National Colloquium on Access to Food for students that more than 30% of students are food insecure. Building green universitites will mean that our universities will start installing renewable energy that can result in universities spending less on electricity, which would mean more funds available for affordable accommodation.
Making student accommodation affordable and conducive will greatly contribute to reducing university dropouts and failure rates. If the environment for learning is conducive our country will begin to produce knowledge, to be innovative and be a participant in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Inversely, lack of a comforting environment for learning and for producing ideas contributes to the underdevelopment of our country.
Providing affordable accommodation for students will contribute to former president Nelson Mandela’s dream of seeing the downtrodden using education as a vehicle for upward mobility. As he asserted:
“Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm workers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.”
The government and private sector need to play their joint role of providing feasible student accommodation. The Wits University students protest “Land is Accommodation” is a revolutionary cause, along with movements such as Reclaim the City in Cape Town. This struggle is the struggle to protect the poor and working class’s safety and dignity. DM
Ashley Nyiko Mabasa is YCLSA branch Secretary and Sociology honours student