Caught in the chaos

2014-02-14 00:00

A PERSON must be desperate to hand over all his or her luggage to a stranger for safekeeping —not knowing if the stranger’s offer of help is genuine or not.

Last week, a University of KwaZulu-Natal student kicked off the campus because of the ongoing strike, entrusted me with all her worldly goods.

I was covering the strike at the Howard College campus when I noticed the distraught-looking young woman sitting in the campus quadrangle.

Nobuhle Madondo* had travelled from her Ulundi home, leaving behind her pensioner mother, whom she described as “old and frail”, in pursuit of her dream of becoming a psychologist.

Madondo had been caught up in the wave of student unrest.

While striking students danced, threw stones and disrupted lectures in anger over the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, she was desperate for help.

Like many out-of-town students, she was confused and didn’t know who to turn to for help.

I asked her if she was okay, and she related her story to me.

I offered to keep her clothing, cooking utensils and other items for her, and she jumped at the offer.

Left with little choice, she took a risk by trusting a complete stranger.

The following day, she sent me a message while standing in a long queue: “I don’t think I’m going to get res. The other students are pushing their way to the front. I think the offices are going to close before I register. I haven’t even received NSFAS.”

She was right. She did not make the front of the queue and was turned away.

She had to be at the university at 6 am the following day and patiently stood in the line for hours. Finally, her perseverance paid off and she secured accommodation, but not the student funding she needs.

“I have a problem with NSFAS. Can you please help me?” she pleaded in another SMS.

Madondo, like many out-of-town students, was let down by the vicious cycle of protests that plays out at tertiary institutions annually.

The DUT and UKZN campuses resembled mini war zones while the students expressed their anger at the NSFAS.

Frustrated and exasperated, students, led by their Students Representative Council, lashed out at their own institutions instead of at the NSFAS, the head office of which is in Cape Town.

The DUT was closed for more than a week.

The students’ grievances were related to the NSFAS’s failure to pay last year’s fees, which could mean that some students may not get funding to study this year.

Higher Education and Training Minister Dr Blade Nzimande recently boasted about the NSFAS coffers and praised President Jacob Zuma’s administration for having spent more on the financial-aid vehicle than any other president.

But he also admitted that the R9,7 billion scheme cannot cover everyone. With the number of unemployed youths in the country, obtaining a diploma or a degree has become one way young people feel they can break the shackles of poverty.

Like Nzimande, I cringe at violent protests and believe that strikes should be a last resort.

I’m an advocate of dialogue between parties — in this case between the university management and the SRC, and, of course, the NSFAS, to resolve issues.

But somehow, it gives me comfort that young people are taking to the streets because they want to go to school and better their lives.

But just like many commentators have said, these protests could play out every year because no matter how much the government coughs up, it can only cover one out of every two students who apply for funding.

Tertiary institutions should engage with students and vice versa, while potential students should try to seek alternative funding in case the NSFAS rejects their applications.

I returned Madondo’s bags three days after she had thrust them into my arms for safekeeping.

She is still waiting to hear if her degree will be funded by the financial aid scheme.

* Nobuhle Madondo is an alias. She asked The Witness not to reveal her identity.

• Gabisile Ngcobo is a reporter at The Witness.

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