'No need for shutdown', says Nzimande as student union vows not to back down

2020-01-29 13:03
Dr Blade Nzimande, Minister of higher education. (Sydney Seshibedi, Gallo Images, file)

Dr Blade Nzimande, Minister of higher education. (Sydney Seshibedi, Gallo Images, file) (Sydney Seshibedi)

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Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande has said he hopes the country is not in for another year of turbulence and stated there is no need for the disruption of registration at universities across the country.

In an interview with eNCA on Tuesday, Nzimande said: "All the issues that have been raised by the South African Union of Students, we have discussed with them and we have also responded to all the issues."

The South African Union of Students (SAUS) has called for a national shutdown of all universities after talks with the Department of Higher Education and Training seemingly failed, according to the union.

READ | Student union calls for national university shutdown after talks break down

The shutdown call follows a purported breakdown in talks between the department, the SAUS, Student Representative Council (SRC) presidents and secretary generals of South African public universities.

According to the union, it held talks with 21 of the 26 public universities, of which some students from 18 have agreed to join the shutdown.

Issues of concern for the SAUS is access to higher education for poor students.

Demanding debts be scrapped

This includes students from middle-income backgrounds who cannot register due to historic debt, no walk-in applications at universities, students who cannot afford post-graduate studies and those whose results have been withheld by universities, the union said in a statement on Monday.

On Sunday, Nzimande said that NSFAS-qualifying students who carry debt from 2019 will be allowed to register at universities, provided they sign an acknowledgement of debt (AOD) form, News24 reported.

But the SAUS wants historic debts to be scrapped, students in debt to be allowed to register and academic records and certificates to be issued to all students, even those owing fees.

In his reply to the list of demands, Nzimande said while NSFAS-qualifying students who carry debt from 2019 would be allowed to register, he was also aware of significant student debt from those who were not NSFAS beneficiaries.

"Unfortunately, public funds for the university system are constrained and there is no possibility that debts of students who are not NSFAS-qualifying can be eradicated by government. A longer-term solution lies in improved funding opportunities for 'missing middle' students, and working with the private sector," he said.

In a statement on Wednesday, the SAUS said it noted "the continuous regrettable comments uttered by Minister Blade Nzimande throughout various interviews during the course of the week.

"As SAUS, we would have hoped that the minister would take poor students, students from working-class backgrounds and the South African nation into [his] confidence by bringing practical solutions that will meaningfully contribute towards enabling access and success for thousands of students who have since been left destitute." 

Violent protests

Violent protests have been taking place at various campuses since Monday, most notably at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), the University of South Africa (Unisa) and the North-West University's (NWU) Mahikeng campus.

On Tuesday, the NWU closed its Mahikeng campus and told students to vacate the campus "until further notice".

The NWU said in a statement on Tuesday that it was "deeply concerned" about the violence. A group of students prevented people from entering the premises on Monday morning.

On Monday evening, senior students allegedly assaulted other students and damaged university property.

The SAUS said it noted "with regret the position taken by some institutions, most notably North-West University, to evict all students from its premises due to protests.

"This eviction gave students less than 24 hours' notice to leave the premises and with no provision of alternative shelter. This, naturally, would result in homelessness which affects the most financially vulnerable students, regardless of their involvement in the protests." 

Student protests demanding fee waivers and academic leeway forced UKZN to close its Pietermaritzburg and Durban campuses on Monday, The Witness reported.

Students at Unisa and authorities in Durban clashed on Monday morning as rubber bullets and tear gas were fired, News24 reported. 

Around 100 students gathered in the university parking lot and blockaded Stalwart Simelane Street outside the Durban campus with fires, sticks, rocks and other objects.

On Wednesday, sporadic protests continued, and registration at UKZN was reportedly disrupted and eventually cancelled. 

The SAUS vowed to continue its shutdown until its demands were met. 

- Compiled by Riaan Grobler

Read more on:    saus  |  nsfas  |  blade nzimande  |  university protests
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