Wits SRC president says student leaders have agreed to a national campaign to force institutions to end financial and academic exclusion.
As a result of the “vague commitments” made by Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande on Thursday regarding student funding, Wits University student representative council (SRC) president Mpendulo Mfeka said the SRC presidents at universities across South Africa had agreed to bring “the country to a standstill, rendering the higher education sector ungovernable”.
The national shutdown is planned to start tomorrow.
Mfeka told City Press that now was the perfect time to strike and intensify their demands for free education.
“We need to act now and force government’s hand,” Mfeka said.
“The way forward now is that we bring the country to a standstill until we have free education.”
An adamant Mfeka said that students were “gatvol of fighting for registration and against fee increments every year. I have spoken to the SRC presidents of other institutions across the country and we are all in agreement that the country must be brought to a standstill until free education is declared, because if we don’t do it now, we might not get the opportunity to do it again.”
His sentiments came amid protests at Wits University, which escalated quickly over the past week, and have since spread to universities across South Africa.
Students are protesting against financial exclusion of academically deserving students who cannot register for this year because of outstanding fees. One of their demands is that the university should allow all students with historical debt to register.
Nzimande briefed the media on Thursday, following a Cabinet meeting the day before during which the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas) funding shortfall was addressed.
The minister announced that the scheme would release more funding and that registrations could now continue.
“I appeal to institutions and to Nsfas to ensure that this process is completed as smoothly as possible,” he said.
Mfeka said Nzimande’s utterances lacked specific details, including time frames.
“That is the vaguest thing I have ever heard. He basically said nothing, because Nsfas can release funding anytime, even in June or next year, for instance,” he said.
According to Mfeka, Nzimande’s time at the helm of the higher education sector has always coincided with tumultuous experiences for students.
Previously, Nzimande was minister of higher education from 2009 to 2017. The iconic #FeesMustFall student protests, which also started at Wits University, in mid-October 2015, happened under his watch.
“There is a huge and fundamental problem, because every time Blade holds the position of minster of higher education, the department is in shambles.
“I do not know who he serves, but every time he is there, there is a particular direction in which he wants to advance things – a direction that is anti-poor.”On Thursday, new Wits vice-chancellor Professor Zeblon Vilakazi announced that “student debt amounts to about R1 billion”.
Vilakazi disputed that “Wits has excluded 6 000 to 8 000 students”, as claimed by student activists.
He also claimed that he had made several attempts to reach out to Mfeka so they could discuss the students’ demands. But Mfeka was adamant that the vice-chancellor’s statements were untrue.
“That is an outright lie, because we probably would not be protesting if there were attempts by him to reach out for a meeting,” he told City Press.
The SRC president explained that students were left with no choice but to embark on the protests, following “a communication breakdown between ourselves and the university’s senior management team”.
Mfeka added that the students were left with nowhere to turn “besides the picket line”.
Reminiscent of the 2015 protests, tensions escalated this week, culminating in violent confrontations between students and the police on Wednesday in Braamfontein.
Wits EFF student command chairperson Sivuyile Mhatu told City Press that, initially, only EFF members had taken “a stand against any form of exclusion of any student, through the Sizofunda Ngenkani campaign”.
“Every year, the student command has its Sizofunda Ngenkani campaign, which is about access for underprivileged and deserving students into institutions of higher learning,” Mhatu said.
“If you qualify, you must study. Whether you have money or not, you must be granted access to education. We are fighting against academic and financial exclusion and any other form of exclusion,” he said.
While the Wits SRC and the EFF student command are fighting for the same cause, but seemingly on different sides of the fence, Mfeka said there was room for unity among the country’s young people.
He cautioned students to refrain from “taking our mandate from the elders in our political structures”.
“Our job is to define our eras, and if it comes as a contradiction of what the elders are saying, let it be because we are young and we must define our [own struggles in our] era,” Mfeka explained.
“As the youth of this country fighting for [free] education, the only way we can unite is if we stop listening to what those in leadership positions – be it in the ANC or EFF – are saying about youth matters.”