Dear Vice-Chancellor of UKZN, Prof. Makgoba

2014-02-23 13:12

We, the undersigned writers of this letter, have agonised greatly about the need for this open letter that we have finally decided to send to your office. Some may see this as a bitter confrontation, we see it as the ultimate exercise of freedom of expression that is protected by our constitution and promoted by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Transformation Charter. It is much easier to pen an open letter to some abstract politician who might never read it. This one is made difficult by the fact that we have all met you in different capacities, yet we feel we have no other avenue but this one in order to communicate the burning issues on hand.

We have taken time to study the conditions that we are faced with as students and we regret to inform you that our University embodies a demoralised morale within and amongst its members. The grievances are many, the time and space for their discussion seem rather hostile and it is hard to have negotiations take place. There is no easier illustration of this than the reality that all five campuses of our University are experiencing some forms of mass demonstration. This is a clear indication of systematic and chronic problems that are being unattended, which fester like a sore.

At this stage, it is important to indicate our credentials. We are senior students in the University; we are all registered for Masters Degrees within the College of Humanities in the Howard College Campus. Amongst ourselves, we hold a wealth of leadership and academic excellence that has been confirmed and conferred to us through various means by the University. Our records of accomplishment show that at all times we have put the interests of this University first and we have never seek to cause harm to the image of the institution. However, we wish to be clear that at all times most of our actions are informed by the pursuit of social justice, which should be at the core of our University’s agenda.

The road to social justice has always presented itself as a risky one, coarse and undesirable. Anyone who commits to such journey must be well equipped with both courage and conviction for that which they advocate. The price to pay for this pursuit of justice is high even though we are in a democratic era of our society. Where an injustice is occurring, that becomes the site of struggle – at all times. It saddens us that we have reached a point where we can say without any fear of contradiction that today UKZN now represents a site of struggle and we cannot be found acting indifferent at the face of injustice meted out against the students by a management that you lead.

By the time, you receive this letter it would be beyond 16:00, 21 February 2014, a time set as the cut-off for registration in our institution. Yet, this will not water down the merits of our plea to your office to consult with the relevant parties in order to extend the registration deadline. There are parents who will be getting paid on the 25th and 28th of February 2014, which will give them an opportunity to raise some of the money their children are either owing or need in order to register. Some students have managed to secure loans or bank notices that will only clear in the next week. What should happen to those students? Yes, we accept that registration cannot be open perpetually; however, we believe there is merit in extending the registration deadline to Monday, 3 March 2014.

Most students’ parents’ salaries have not increased substantially enough to withstand the economic strains they suffer from increases seen in the food, fuel and electricity industries. The economy of the country has generally stagnated with the rand skyrocketing, yet our Council found it prudent to raise tuition fees by 12% and residence fees by 9% in both 2012 and 2013. These increases are themselves unjust and out of touch with reality and they are party to the growing number of students who are now owing the University. The external factors of the economy, whereby some parents get retrenched due to the disinvestment by some businesses in a bid to sustain profits cannot be ignored by the management as your draw plans to present to Council.

We cannot afford to allow public institutions of higher learning to gravitate towards being hubs of capital accumulation at the expense of the students who hail from poor backgrounds. It is not our place to remind you that many of our students are a product of quintile 1&2 schools, which automatically gives a context to their socioeconomic realities. If the University continues to accept these students from such schools, it must do so knowing that it commits to do everything in its powers to raise funds for them. At times, students are told that the University is now getting less and less funds from the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET). It is your duty, with the support of the other 11 members of the Executive Management Committee of UKZN, to fight for more funding for the institution.

Growingly, the failure of management to make a case for more funds is being deferred to be the responsibility of students through exorbitant increases in fees. This is an unsustainable path. The government can afford to raise the budget of the DHET by R5-10 billion for purposes of funding, but it will take the astuteness of managements from across the different public Universities to make it a reality. Government has committed over R900-billion on infrastructure development. It is interesting how our Universities have not made a case to receive a share of that money because Human Resource (in this instance, students that are being educated and trained) is a form of infrastructure. Infrastructure extends beyond skyscrapers and deep wells of water to turn turbines – because eventually there must be work force, armed with the knowledge and skills to execute the task of constructing and that of operating the end product. You cannot exclude the need for financial injection for the funding of students in this pursuit for infrastructure development.

We write this letter to you at a time of growing uncertainty and speculation in our University, as your post has been advertised. Like any captain, parting with a ship he or she has captained for long, the question of legacy becomes important. The reality is that it is the memories that you leave us with that will form the legacy we formulate about you. Usually it is said that first impressions last, yet in after ten years at helm, possibly it is the last impressions that will be remembered the most. Students currently have memories of fear, indifference, and lack of sympathy, neglect and anger with the management you lead.

Students have almost been deposed their constitutional right to protest. The University has no desire to see protests in its institutions, even peaceful protest. Students in Howard College Campus, this year, have demonstrated with maturity and conviction, remaining disciplined and peaceful, yet your management descended with “the full might of the law” as one of your executive directors (an individual who has a vast background with the necessity of protests from his tenure in unions) put it. Our campuses are littered with security guards clad in riot gear, which we view as nothing but a paramilitary intended to store fear in the souls of students. This costly exercise demonstrates the highest disdain our management has for dialogue. Yet during normal times our campus has poor security presence even in known crime hotspots, some female students even experience attempted rapes in the library. Students are not monsters, when they protest they simply seek an ear to be heard in a way that is genuine, frank and willing to engage in good faith. In the midst of this entire crisis, you have not found it worthy to go and talk to students on the ground. You have insisted on engaging SRC members albeit at a distance in most cases. Your absent presence has been highly felt; the ship has hit an iceberg.

Over 2500 returning students face the might of the University by being evicted mainly on the basis that they are financially needy. Amongst those students – contrary to some media belief – there are students who are academically performing, such as a Golden Key International Honours Society member whom we are aware of. Such students are in the top 15% of academic achievers, yet the University has no heart to hear their case. Some students facing financial exclusion have represented the University through various societies such as Enactus (which has traveled to international conferences), political formations and faith-based organisation. These are the cases and many others of academically performing yet financially needy students we are fighting for.

Instead of exploring many alternatives, your management has successfully branded our struggles as offshoots of disgruntlement. Management has almost nullified our struggle and painted it as a farcical one in the media. However, many media houses have growingly seen through this deception. As the writers of this letter we are moved by many other injustices that occur in our campus. These present themselves in the form of shoddy supervision for some postgraduate students, the lack of proper tutoring, the inability to accommodate the crowds of students you accept and some end up sitting on the floor. We are disturbed by the manner in which academics are overworked and underpaid, which affects the ability for them to ooze excellence and mentor students properly. Our campus has turned into one of complainers, nobody is happy – that is one sad reality, from support staff to academics to students.

The choice that confronts your management Vice-Chancellor is a simple one; agree on the extension of the extension of registration. Further to that descend from your high rise offices and talk to students on the ground. This form of dialogue is well promoted by our UKZN Transformation Charter which lies dormant if not actively implemented. There has to be contact between management and the general students. Why has anyone of you not gone down to accept a memorandum in any of the campuses that went on strike? Only self-righteousness and a degree of arrogance – on the part of management – can make it seem as though students are hooligans who use protest as a hobby to pass time. Why are you not engaging students as you were able to do so? All campuses have had strikes and we must proceed as though things are normal? It cannot be. These strikes were not about peer pressure or inter-campus solidarity; all campuses have issues that they want addressed.

Given that when the darling Medical School campus went on a serious trike for the first time in a long time, the students there were not arrested (even though there exists the so-called “court interdict”), even though in a similar strike in Howard College on the 13 February 2014, six students were targeted and arrested. Interestingly, the Magistrate dealing with their bail application found it baffling that the six students were arrested to begin with and called the state’s case shabby and not worthy of time in a court of law as it were. Our management has managed to use the courts and police to intimidate and silence us. Right now, our will is activated, we refuse to be silenced. Our silence would be the greatest injustice beyond those facing students.

We want to canvass other MECs to pledge money for fellow students just as the MEC for Health cleared debt for 38 student doctors – this is only possible if the registration deadline is extended. It is also wrong of the MEC for Health to intervene only to rescue the doctors and not the nursing students even though all these students fall under the College of Health Sciences. There are about 30 nursing students that face financial exclusion, yet the country faces a shortage of nurses and excluding these students does a disservice to the imperatives of the NHI and NDP (which you served in the committee that produced it) to prioritise primary healthcare. Nurses are a cardinal component of primary healthcare. You have further pledged as the Vice-Chancellor bursaries of R3250 to students who do not owe but are unable to pay for their registration. The problem with this pledge you have made is that you made it within 48 hours of the registration deadline – clearly with no seriousness to increase its reach to those students who are in homes far away from Durban. Furthermore, you are giving students a rope to hang themselves. If students are financially needy, why do you not consider half bursaries? Where will they get the rest of the fees? Are you deliberately creating debt for them? Why have you not made provisions for the students who reside in residences and do not have the R6000 needed for both tuition and residence registration? Please do not defer dreams of students and future leaders.

May you ponder on Langston Hughes questions: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore-- And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over-- like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?”

Written by: Lukhona Mnguni, Mnikeni Phakathi, Siyabonga Khumalo and Thembani Khumalo

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