Fight for justice or a student holiday?

2008-03-20 00:00

WHEN I got to the rally on the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Pietermaritzburg campus on Tuesday, my first impression was that students just wanted an extended Easter break and an excuse not to attend tests.

The rally was held on the main campus in front of Old Main Building — a majestic background for what was actually happening. I was at the back of the crowd and I could barely hear the demands the Student Representative Council (SRC) representative was reading out. There was a comic moment when the voice coming from a radio that was on the hip of a security guard drew more attention than the speakers at the front.

Being on the outskirts of the politics I could see that some people weren’t sure why they were there. A couple of girls sat on the grass, proving that they could do two things at the same time by glancing through a glossy magazine as they listened to the various speakers. Boys with ears plugged up by ear phones were either extremely good at reading lips or trying to beat the girls at proving that they could listen attentively to two things at the same time.

Despite the seeming apathy of the political backbenchers, the rest of the crowd was alive with indignation. Some wore the yellow T-shirts that represented the SRC’s leading party (the ANC Youth League), some blew their vuvuzelas and others held up posters calling for The Big Chill to be re-opened (I wondered what that was about).

The commotion was actually about student housing. In the memorandum of demands, the students of the university’s Pietermaritzburg campus put forward their case to the department of student housing (DOSH). They pointed out that every year there are around 400 students on the waiting list for accommodation and out of around 8 000 registered students the university can only accommodate about 1 600 (I had no idea the gap between registered students and those who have accommodation was that dramatic).

I was going through a copy of the memorandum while I spoke to Thabo*, a member of the ANC Youth League. He told me that over a hundred people have been sharing beds with strangers because of this problem. They had been struggling with this campaign for weeks and now they are holding a strike (which is completely legal) to disrupt the education programme so that they can be listened to.

Trevor Wills, the executive dean of students, was there to receive the memorandum of demands and address the crowd. He took off his glasses after scanning the sheets and said that they will look closely at the demands but the call for Vasanthie Naidoo (the director of student housing) and Reverend James Ngomane (the deputy dean of campus) to resign can only be regulated by normal university procedures. I thought his comment was fair but the rest of the herd did not seem satisfied. When the SRC representative said, “comrades ... you’ve heard Trevor Wills speak”, the crowd blatantly denied it.

Given that the SRC had taken part in “raising the concerns [about] the shortage of accommodation for the past three years and more”, as stated in the memorandum, in vain, I thought they had a point. But what has all this got to do with The Big Chill, which is an on-campus drinking facility?

Nothing apparently. Thabo told me the person running the facility has come to the end of his contract and the university is thinking of not renewing the contract because of a clash that happened during orientation earlier this year. They had promised the orientation programme that the SAB sponsors could sell alcohol through them but in the end the people running The Big Chill refused.

Thabo told me the campaign is not just about demands, it is about awareness. I thought of the girls with the glossy magazine, the “Big Chill” posters and the guys with the plugged-up ears and wondered if that side of the campaign reached its goals.

* Not his real name.

•Symphrose Temu is a foreign student at UKZN.

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