A group of about 300 enraged Unisa students blockaded Langalibalele Street on Wednesday in a protest against the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and issues with the university’s financial office.
The students emptied out rubbish bins in the road and set the litter alight while singing, chanting and calling for free education.
There was a standoff between the protesting students and armed police who tried to disperse the crowd.
The university’s provincial SA Students Congress (Sasco) chairperson, Mondli Shezi, said NSFAS had failed to attend a planned meeting with the students to address various student concerns.
Shezi said NSFAS had not confirmed if they would be funding students and had not allocated funds for returning students. “We had an arrangement with the university’s student funding in Pretoria and NSFAS where they were supposed to come and address students and inform them about the issues students are having with NSFAS,” he said.
“They were supposed to give answers about when students will be given NSFAS and the issue of free education, but they failed to come and did not tell us that they were not coming.”
Shezi said students had gathered on campus yesterday waiting for NSFAS officials but they did not show up.
“That’s when students felt obligated to take to the street because no one is taking us seriously,” said Shezi.
Sasco’s deputy secretary Khetha Mthethwa said they wanted all the students who applied and qualify for NSFAS to be awarded funding by today or they will be “shutting down all Unisa campuses”.
Shezi said they wanted clarity on President Jacob Zuma’s announcement of “free education for all”.
“We want answers. In this generation when you say free education for all, you cannot exclude someone based on their family’s income without considering the family’s needs as a whole.
“If it is free education let it be free education for all,” said Shezi.
He added that they had handed over a memorandum with their demands to the university’s management.
Regional spokesperson for the university Jo Cossavella agreed that the SRC had organised a mass meeting in Pietermaritzburg for NSFAS to address the various student concerns.
“NSFAS informed the leadership last night that they would not be addressing the students [on Wednesday]. This angered the students.
“Students are complaining that NSFAS has not settled their study fees for this academic year,” said Cossavella.
She added that no memorandum of demand was handed to the centre management in Pietermaritzburg.
Mthethwa said they were surprised at the swift response by police to their protest when they had “failed to respond to the recent taxi strike”.
“The police were quick to respond and threaten harmless and unarmed students when not so long ago they allowed taxi operaters to run amok in the city. We are their children fighting for education but we are being intimidated and threatened,” said Mthethwa, adding that they intend to open cases against some of the police officers who attended the protest yesterday.
Pietermaritzburg police spokesperson Sergeant Mthokozisi Ngobese said no protesters were arrested.