‘The minister can’t relate to the poor’: Students continue varsity protests

UKZN Westville campus, where students protested. Picture: Jabulani Langa
UKZN Westville campus, where students protested. Picture: Jabulani Langa

Calls for a total shutdown of four university campuses in KwaZulu-Natal have received condemnation from Higher Education and Training Minister Naledi Pandor.

Students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), Durban University of Technology, Mangosuthu University of Technology and the University of Zululand shut down campuses, because some of them had not been able to register or find accommodation because the National Student Financial Aid Scheme had not paid their allowances.

UKZN student representative council president, Sanele Hlongwa told City Press that he was not surprised by the minister’s sentiment.

“The minister cannot relate to the poor because she has never been poor. Since she has held this new position she has never even made an effort to engage us as the UKZN student representative council. She has never explored the avenue of engaging us, so how can she understand our struggles as poor students,” he said.

Hlongwa, who has been at the helm of the UKZN student representative council since September last year, said that he had declared the shutdown of the university on Saturday.

“We shut down the institution yesterday [February 4] but I called for it on Saturday. All this is in relation to the memorandum of the student representative council. Our main issues include clearance for registration, as most students can’t register because of historical debts, provision of conducive residences for students and funding for all students who meet National Student Financial Aid Scheme requirements,” he said.

However, spokesperson for the department, Lunga Ngqengelele said that a number of meetings between student leadership and the department had taken place.

“Since last year, many meetings have taken place with student leaders and the minister. The minister also directed the department’s officials, led by director-general Gwebinkundla Qonde, to provide the necessary support to all affected institutions. Wherever there is some relationship breakdown between student leaders and university management we will facilitate meetings. The director-general led a team to assist universities that see themselves in these situations,” he said.

Pandor called on all students to resist the proposed shutdown of universities as “it will severely affect the academic year, resulting in many not being able to finish their degrees on time, if ever”.

“I urge all student organisations to focus on real students concerns and make every effort to resolve problems without impacting on the academic programme,” the minister said.

Hlongwa, however, emphasised that “the only time we will go back to class is when all our issues have been resolved. Looking back as far as four to five years ago, we are still fighting the same fight and we will continue to do so,” he said.

Ngqengelele said that there were limited resources at the department’s disposal.

“Free education is something that we are doing. It’s just that we do not have an unlimited supply of money to be able to assist everyone, but we are trying. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme announced more than 300 000 first-time first year students who will be funded and that is something positive,” he said.

#FeesMustFall all over again

Hlongwa’s words are in reference to the 2015 #FeesMustFall protests which erupted across South Africa’s higher education institutions, in which students aimed to stop fee increases, as well as to increase government funding of universities.

The 2015 protest ended when it was announced that there would be no tuition fee increases for 2016. However, the protests flared up again in 2016 when then minister of higher education, Blade Nzimande announced that there would be fee increases capped at 8% for 2017, with each institution given the freedom to decide by how much their tuition would increase.

“Every generation has its own mission and we will continue to fight. Our institution has undermined students for too long,” he added.

Hlongwa said that a national shutdown was a possibility.

“Institutional autonomy is a reality and I, in my capacity as UKZN student representative council president, cannot comment on matters in other universities. All I can say is that we all face the same issues,” he said.

The Wits University student representative council called for a shutdown of the institution on Monday, after the university announced that some students were not eligible to register to study in the 2019 academic year. According to the institution, only students with debts of R10 000 and less would be allowed to register.

The university’s student leadership has embarked on a hunger strike.

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