How would you react?

2013-03-25 00:00

“HAMBA mntanami uye eNyuvesi ukuze uthole umsebenzi, sikhathele ukuhlupheka la ekhaya”. These are the words of the average rural mother who is encouraging her child to go study at university so the child can get a job and help the family out of poverty. Another parent says: “Stay in school and off the streets. I won’t have any child of mine become a streetkid or a worker on Point Road [Durban’s well-known adult entertainment street].”

What, then, must this mother say when she hears her child has been cast onto the street by the very institution that is a symbol of hope to the public? Not just any street, but right into Point Road — now Mahatma Gandhi Road; a street most will know is not exactly famous for luxurious hotels and great study facilities.

This is what more than 500 UKZN Howard College campus students have been put through. The university was supposed to have arranged accommodation for all these students. However, just a few weeks into the year, students who were staying at an off-campus residence were forced out due to problems with the landlord — apparently rates were not paid, some floors had water and electricity, others were forced to dine by candlelight. The students were then moved to a hotel in Mahatma Gandhi Road. The students were to stay there for a week while the university secured permanent accommodation for them.

A week passed, no accommodation had been found, and students were evicted from the hotel. Some slept on the streets. Others were put into temporary residences. At these residences, students were met with bloodstains on the beds, colonies of mites, and condoms in the passages. There were so many prostitutes that the only room service that knocked at the door was from men who needed to be … well … serviced.

This is when the students decided they had had enough. They made their way to the streets to protest against the treatment they were receiving, and don’t forget they had already paid accommodation fees — about R17 000 for the year. The protests escalated to a point where students were disrupting lectures and even damaging university property. This is likely to be the image people are left with: students damaging university property instead of studying.

For those who say: “Well, we understand they have a problem with management, but they should not be violent and they should not be disrupting lectures for other students. What they are now doing is wrong. Two wrongs don’t make a right.” If you paid someone R17 000 for a place to stay, and you ended up sharing a bed with a mite, a bloodstain and a used condom, how long would it take you to get violent?

So, how does the university deal with this issue? Well, it appears the blame has been shifted to the landlord where all this started. The university has now sent e-mails and text messages to students notifying them that the Easter holidays, meant to start on March 28, will now start on March 20, thus allowing students to go home until lectures commence on April 8. The 560 students have apparently been given R1 000 each to go home. This R560 000 could have been put to better use. Every year, there are issues about more accommodation and people not affording tuition fees. The ending of lectures is a smart move by management. You cannot strike for accommodation if you are at home. So, send the students home — no students, no strike, no negative media attention.

This is not just a student issue, certainly not a residence students’ issue, and definitely not just a UKZN issue. This is a human rights issue. Some students will be celebrating having an extended vacation, while some will be enjoying the money they received. Some parents will be glad their children are back at home. But there is not much to be happy about here. Universities are supposed to represent hope for the community, be a place for young people to establish their future, not a place where students are trying to survive. If the youth is the future, we should be appalled at how we are treating this future.

• Nduduzo Msibi is the chairperson of the Black Management Forum Student Chapter in KZN and an M.Com student. He writes in his own capacity.

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